The fight between Tea Party movement supporters and establishment Republicans for command of the state GOP, which will culminate at next May's primary election, is already raging.
Senate President David Williams, who yearns to be Kentucky's next governor, will join his running mate, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, at the scenic Donamire Farm on Old Frankfort Pike on Wednesday night to kick off their 2011 Republican campaign.
The event will be co-hosted by several longtime backers of the Republican Party of Kentucky — people like Corbin banker Terry Forcht; former state GOP chairman Bob Gable; and the farm's owners, Don and Mira Ball.
"I'm supporting David Williams because he's the smartest person in Frankfort," Gable said. "He's the most articulate person I know. He has provided excellent leadership in the Senate and has demonstrated strong conservative values, and will make a fine governor."
Not all Republicans agree with Gable's assessment.
"I don't give David Williams a chance to be our next governor, at least I hope he isn't," said Randy Walters, a supporter and organizer of the Tea Party movement in Kentucky who is backing Louisville businessman Phil Moffett as the GOP's standard-bearer in next year's gubernatorial election.
Walters, a radio host for WLZB in Hazard, said he blames Williams and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who wants to be re-elected, for Kentucky's $7.7 billion debt, and claims they have a propensity to raise taxes.
He pointed to various building and road projects that Williams has brought to his south-central Kentucky district and his support of higher alcohol and cigarette taxes in 2009.
"I think the GOP primary is going to be a battle for the soul of the Republican Party," Walters said.
Though the Republican primary election for governor isn't until May 17, Williams and Moffett are trying now to ingratiate themselves with the Tea Party movement.
Moffett said he hoped to gain the support of Tea Party members when he announced his campaign with state Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville in July on WLAP-AM's The Pulse of Lexington with Leland Conway.
Williams declared last week during a speech at University of Kentucky's Law School that "I am a Tea Partier."
He also tried to curry favor with the movement that seeks limited government by appearing often on the campaign trail this fall with Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite who won the U.S. Senate race Nov. 2 by 12 percentage points over Democrat Jack Conway.
Paul told Louisville's WHAS-TV shortly after the Nov. 2 election that he is not taking sides in Kentucky's 2011 Republican primary for governor, saying Republican voters will sort out the contest between Williams and Moffett.
Radio host Walters said he was disappointed that Paul allowed Williams to accompany him on the campaign trail.
"It would be tragic if Paul officially endorsed Williams in the Republican primary for governor, but it wouldn't make any difference to Tea Party members I know," Walters said. "No one is going to tell the Tea Party what to do. It's like trying to herd cats."
Walters said he choked when he read on the Lexington Herald-Leader's politics Web site last week that Williams proclaimed himself a Tea Partier.
Walters also said he is not concerned that "established regulars or the good ol' boys" of the state GOP are backing Williams.
"I think they also backed Trey Grayson," he said, referring to the secretary of state who lost the Republican U.S. Senate nomination to Paul in the May primary even with the support of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville.
Williams' supporter Gable said he thinks of himself as a Tea Party supporter, "though I haven't made a giant announcement about it like David has.
"The Tea Party is making sense about the role of government, and I think all Republicans simply want someone who can deliver in running government more efficiently," he said. "Right now, there's just some disagreement in the party on who's the best to accomplish that. I think it's David Williams."
Williams' campaign manager, Scott Jennings, said Williams has been a conservative leader in the Senate.
"He has stood up to liberal Democrats, the liberal media and others who want to paint him as something that he is not," Jennings said. "He has been a voice of reason on fiscal matters in the state."
Williams, a Burkesville attorney, has been in the state Senate since 1987 and its president since 2000. He was a member of the state House from 1985 to 1986. Williams has not been shy about exercising his power in the Senate, a move that propelled some Democrats to dub him "the bully from Burkesville."
When he announced his gubernatorial campaign in September, Williams said Kentucky needed "a positive, pro-jobs agenda to put us in competition with other states."
Moffett, managing partner of the telecommunications management company CCS Partners, is making his first bid for public office. He has been a board member of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a libertarian-leaning think tank based in Bowling Green.
He favors getting rid of the state income tax on individuals and businesses, and implementing a sales tax on services. He has said he could make up any resulting dip in revenue for the state by eliminating waste but has not identified what would be cut.
A big uncertainty in the Republican primary race is Moffett's fund-raising ability.
Moffett's campaign manager, David Adams, said Moffett is "attracting more and more attention in the state and around the nation. We believe the money will be there."
Adams said the campaign will make use of "money bombs," an online fund-raising tool popularized by Rand Paul's father, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, in his unsuccessful 2008 bid for president, and used extensively in Rand Paul's U.S. Senate race.
Adams also noted that there will be only three gubernatorial elections next year in the United States — in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi — and no elections for the U.S. Senate and House.
"The Tea Party across the nation will focus on these three gubernatorial races, and we think we will get tremendous help from it," Adams said.
It's also possible that the field of candidates for the Republican nomination for governor will expand.
Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw said last week that she is "seriously considering" the race and hopes to make a decision about it next month.
Cathy Bailey of Louisville, who was former President George W. Bush's ambassador to Latvia, has been mentioned as a possible candidate. She did not respond last week to several phone calls for comment.
Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon, who also has been mentioned as a possible GOP contender for governor, said in an e-mail that he has no plans to run for governor next year and wants to stay in his job "working for the people of Warren County."
GOP political consultant Mike Karem, who is hopeful Holsclaw will enter the race, said he has not heard anything negative about Moffett, "but nobody knows him."
Of Williams, Karem said, "More and more Republicans are questioning his electability.
"He can't say he's a Reagan conservative with his record of higher taxes and spending projects. And when he says he's 'a Tea Partier,' I guess by Easter, he'll be saying he's the Easter bunny."