Can The Kentucky Tea Party Win? An Election Analysis

With the news that more than a dozen tea party groups are actively recruiting a GOP candidate to run against U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014, it’s worth taking a look at how Kentucky tea party-endorsed candidates have fared in statewide or Congressional races.

Since forming in the run up to the 2010 mid-term elections, Kentucky’s tea party has won more than a third of the races its challenged for prominent offices, and its candidates have won several primaries over Republican establishment candidates.

Here’s a rundown:

Any such analysis must begin with the man who helps launch the tea party rise in Kentucky: U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

There’s a caveat with Paul: the support for his candidacy stemmed not only from the tea party but also from the “liberty movement” championed by his father, then-U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a perennial Republican presidential candidate.

The groups have much in common, but they’re not the same.

Regardless, Paul’s 23-point defeat of Trey Grayson—the Kentucky Republican establishment candidate who McConnell supported—in the 2010 Republican primary and double-digit general election over Democrat Jack Conway are doubtless the Kentucky tea party’s greatest achievement.

The tea party had less success in Louisville. The same year as Paul’s senate victory, the group latched onto Republican Todd Lally to challenge Rep. John Yarmuth in Kentucky’s third congressional district.

Yarmuth won the general election by double digits. So 2010 finished 1-for-2.

The next year brought less success. The tea party-selected gubernatorial candidate, Phil Moffett, surprised many with a strong showing in the GOP primary—but he still lost to then-state Senate President David Williams. The tea party did win two other primaries: John Kemper for auditor and Bill Johnson for secretary of state, over candidates recruited by the state GOP to run against the tea party types.

Both Kemper and Johnson lost in the general election—as did Todd P’Pool, who the tea party endorsed for attorney general during the general election but had no primary opposition.

The only 2011 winner in the general election that received tea party support was James Comer, the current agriculture commissioner. But Comer also had support from McConnell on down through the GOP ranks. 

That’s a one-for-five record in ’11.

In 2012, tea party groups did better. They rallied around MIT grad Thomas Massie in a crowded primary with well-known candidates for the fourth congressional district, which covers northern Kentucky, eastern part of Louisville’s metro area and parts of eastern Kentucky.

Like Paul, Massie was an unknown before he declared his candidacy, which took off once he was in the race. He won the general election handily.

But  Massie was the only major tea party-endorsed candidate to win in 2012.

So, tea party-backed candidates have won three or eight major races—38 percent. Of the five losses, the bulk were in races for state office.

In 2014, the prominent races will be federal.

In those, the tea party has won 67 percent.

Tea Party Candidates (v = victory)

2010

  • Rand Paul (V)
  • Todd Lally

2011

  • John Kemper
  • Bill Johnson
  • Todd P’Pool
  •  James Comer (V)
  •  Phil Moffett

2012  

  • Thomas Massie (V)

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