This could be a seminal year for the Republican Party, in Kentucky and around the nation. The rise of the Tea Party movement has produced a tug of war for the GOP's soul, a contest that already has prompted Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to drop his R label and launch an independent campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.
Tugging from one side are the establishment Republicans who have guided the party in recent years. Pulling in the opposite direction are those who think the party has strayed from its roots on such issues as deficit spending and the size and reach of the federal government.
Kentucky's Republican primary for the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning offers a perfect example of this struggle.
Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who has built a solid record during two terms in office, represents establishment Republicans. He has been endorsed by former Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani.
Bowling Green ophthalmologist and anti-tax crusader Rand Paul, who proudly claims he was in the Tea Party before there was one, represents "the barbarians at the gate."
Folks backing him include Bunning, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Focus on the Family's James Dobson.
(Also running limited campaigns in this race are Gurley L. Martin of Owensboro, John J. Scriber of Gray and John Stephenson of Fort Mitchell.)
Differences between the Grayson and Paul campaigns are few. Paul would do away with budgetary earmarks; Grayson wants to reform the process but would not eliminate them. Paul favors term limits for members of Congress; Grayson does not. Grayson would support McConnell's re-election as Republican floor leader; Paul has not said who he would support.
On core Republican issues, though, they pretty much adhere to the party line, even as each accuses the other of straying from it.
So, the choice for Kentucky's Republican voters comes down to this:
If you want to continue along the path paved in recent years by former President George W. Bush, Cheney and McConnell, Trey Grayson is your man. He's the known quantity. He has that record of service voters can evaluate. He is likeable and competent.
If you want to alter the party's course, vote for Rand Paul. As something of a political outsider, Paul is perhaps not the instinctively safe choice for Republicans. He's smart, refreshingly candid and obviously sincere in his convictions. But it remains to be seen whether his political ideas — steeped in theory, but untested by reality — would lend themselves to compromise and deliberation, or simply marginalize him as a gadfly.
While both candidates have wallowed in the mud a bit, which has become standard practice in American politics, Grayson's campaign has been the more disappointing because of its seeming lack of energy and its failure to make a strong case for voters choosing him as Kentucky's next senator.
Besides, we've been down the Bush-Cheney-McConnell path. And in this case, that definitely was enough. It wasn't a pleasant trip into an unnecessary war in Iraq and a tanked economy, worse than anything seen since the Great Depression.
"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive," Thomas Jefferson once opined.
Perhaps the same can be said of political parties. Perhaps they, too, need to undergo an uprising from time to time. Kentucky Republicans can make this one of those times by picking Rand Paul as their U.S. Senate nominee.
Candidates not endorsed in this race may submit a statement of no more than 250 words by noon Wednesday.