a Mitch and Rand McClatchy photo

Why McConnell 2014 = Rand 2016

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As more disappointing primary results for those of us still bitterly clinging to our guns and our Bibles like me continue to pour in, there is now a subplot developing in the Kentucky U.S. Senate race that has national implications for 2016.

Ditch McConnell did beat upstart challenger Matt Bevin, and by a solid margin. However, the 60% of the vote McConnell received is the lowest any incumbent U.S. Senator has received in a Kentucky primary since 1938. McConnell already had some of the weakest general election numbers of any GOP incumbent this cycle, which looks even worse when you consider how pro-GOP the 2014 cycle is shaping up to be this fall. But throw in the fact a primary challenger he out-spent at least 3-to-1 got more than third of his base’s support, and you don’t have to be the second coming of Lee Atwater to realize McConnell is in trouble this fall.

Enter his fellow U.S. Senator from the Commonwealth — Rand Paul.

Several media reports indicated that McConnell marinated himself in the Rand brand down the stretch of the primary, and that barely a day went by that he didn’t find a way to link himself to his far more popular junior wing-man, who endorsed him early on. It’s quite likely McConnell still would’ve defeated Bevin even without Rand’s support, but the race would’ve been much closer. And an even closer primary would’ve weakened McConnell all the more.

Now an argument could be made that McConnell needs Rand just as much in the general this fall. If even some of Bevin’s 125,000 primary voters stays home in protest, McConnell could very well lose a state Mitt Romney won by more than 20 points in 2012. This is where Rand Paul comes in. Who knows how much of Bevin’s base is mad at Rand for backing McConnell in the first place? That is a question best asked of those on the ground in Kentucky. But over the course of the next five months it will be Rand’s job to find out, because he has a much better chance of turning out Bevin’s base than McConnell does.

However, an argument could also be made that Rand needs McConnell just as much as McConnell needs Rand.

Rand Paul has been running for the 2016 GOP nomination since about 10 seconds after Romney conceded. A lot of his political capital is now tied to Ditch. If McConnell were to lose in November, it could mortally wound Rand’s presidential aspirations because the narrative will not be that he attempted to mainstream his father’s movement, but that he “sold out.” On the other hand, if McConnell wins in November there will be little doubt that Rand “saved” McConnell to at least some extent, which then lets Team Rand make the case he’s now become a major political power-broker.

So Team Rand is married to Team Ditch now. Might as well consummate the relationship and put a ring on it. For the fate of McConnell’s U.S. Senate seat could also determine the fate of Rand Paul 2016.

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