As Kentucky Senate President David Williams joked Saturday evening: "I remember when we could have Fayette County Republican picnics under a funeral tent."
Considering that, the 225 faithful Republicans filling a large party tent to the very edges has to be a good omen for the November elections, Williams said, signalling "tremendous results here in Kentucky."
In recent years, the Fayette County Republican Party picnic has been held on the sumptuous green lawns of Rodney and Rosemary Parsons, right next to the Kentucky Horse Park. (Maybe no longer: The property with a large 1930s house is for sale for a cool $4.5 million.)
This year, attendees were energized by a full array of candidates, from Jay Whitehead for PVA to Ryan Quarles for the state House of Representatives, to the top of the ticket himself, standing right there in a gingham shirt and khakis, U.S. Senate candidate and national political celebrity Rand Paul.
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Paul, who after his primary victory against Secretary of State Trey Grayson stumbled over several gaffes such as saying he disagreed with the Civil Rights Act, stuck closely to a script: The federal government is both spending and intruding too much.
As folks finished up their barbecue and coleslaw, Paul said this election was really about competing visions for America. "The other side believes that spending creates jobs and the government's the answer," he said. "Our side believes that entrepreneurs, small businesses, large businesses, men and women in private sector create jobs. There could never be a more stark difference in the visions for America between how you create jobs.
Paul also took several jabs at his Democratic opponent, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, accusing him of waffling on the cap and trade energy bill and restoration of the estate tax.
"There are problems. ... We do care about the 10 to 15 percent of Kentuckians who don't have jobs," Paul said. But the way to help them, "is through capitalism, private property, profit. That's a different vision. There are answers that involve the marketplace, not more government."
Andy Barr, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler in the Sixth District, followed Paul with more calls for free enterprise.
"My friends, the problem is not a shortage of spending, the problem is a surplus of government," Barr said to plenty of applause.
Barr also called for reforms in Congress, including a requirement for members to read all the bills before voting for them, and a policy to sunset many government programs.
After his speech, Barr said he believes that Paul's popularity will help all Republican candidates in the state. "His message resonates," Barr said.
Paul's national profile and identification with the Tea Party movement have made him stand out — a writer from GQ magazine was at the picnic working on a Paul profile. Even to pragmatic old-timers like Bill Northern, a self-proclaimed horse psychic and political expert, Paul's a different kind of politician.
Northern said he once had lunch with retired U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who told him that if Republicans were elected nationwide, everything would change. "They didn't change everything, but Dr. Paul says it's going to be different," Northern said. "I'm going to wait and see."
Long-time Republican party member Sallie Hubbard said Paul has a "totally different outlook and it's what we need." But she's prosaic too.
"I'm very excited as long as we get Republicans in and Democrats out."