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Rand Paul, Eastern Kentucky and the drug epidemic

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By Aaron Blake

Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul (R) has run into problems in recent days over comments regarding drug use in the Bluegrass State, an issue that Democrats are using to cast the GOP candidate as out-of-touch.

Methamphetamine, marijuana and prescription drug abuse have become an epidemic in rural parts of the state -- particularly in eastern Kentucky. A recent poll showed 60 percent of the eastern 5th congressional district rated drugs as the biggest non-economic issue in their area, and the number was around 25 percent in other rural areas.

So when Paul appeared to dismiss drug abuse in eastern Kentucky as "not a pressing issue," heads turned -- and Republican strategists grimaced.

Johnathan Gay, an eastern Kentucky Republican activist who supported Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the Republican primary earlier this year, said Paul's struggles with the drugs issue would be "fatal" in a less GOP-friendly year.

"I can't imagine that it doesn't further create suspicion that Rand Paul is just not quite someone who gets eastern Kentucky," said Gay, who is co-chair of the nonpartisan Young Professionals of Eastern Kentucky.

Making matters worse for Republicans is the fact that eastern Kentucky is vital to their statewide hopes. Democrats can generally count on big margins in Louisville and some success in the Lexington area, while Republicans run up the score in northern Kentucky and the western part of the state. That leaves eastern Kentucky as the battleground.

The area was crucial in Sen. Jim Bunning's (R-Ky.) 1998 campaign and 2004 re-election. In 1998, Bunning went from behind then Rep. Scotty Baesler to ahead of him when results from the east came in. And when Bunning was nearly upset by a little known state senator named Dan Mongiardo in 2004, Mongiardo's roots in eastern Kentucky were a big reason he nearly pulled the upset.

Mongiardo, who lost the Senate primary this year to state Attorney General Jack Conway, actually won the 5th district in 2004 by a few thousand votes.

Given the recent electoral past of eastern Kentucky, Conway and his team believe it holds the key to the Democrat's hopes -- and that Paul has just handed them a silver bullet-type issue in the region.

"He hurt himself among conservative Democrats and Republicans who say -- from drug abuse to coal safety -- Rand Paul doesn't have any clue what's going on in Kentucky," Conway spokesman John Collins said.

Paul, too, appears to recognize the political peril of his comments.

His campaign immediately tried to walk back his "not a pressing issue" comment after he made it earlier this month, but the effort apparently wasn't enough. He spent Monday touring a faith-based drug treatment facility in western Kentucky and holding a rare press conference to reassure the media that he sees drugs as a serious issue.

That press conference is rightly seen as acknowledgment that he hasn't exactly hit it out of the park on the issue and is trying to put out the political fire before it spreads any further.

At the same time, Paul's stubborn streak could complicate his efforts to put the matter behind him. He reiterated at the press conference that he opposes federal money for programs like Operation UNITE -- an anti-drug program in eastern Kentucky that Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) has funded over the years through federal earmarks.

Rogers, who backed Grayson in the primary, hasn't weighed in on Paul's comments. His office didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton said the candidate looks forward to working with Rogers, but that the solutions should be local rather than federal ones.

Regardless of whether Paul is right about whether the fight against drugs is a state or federal issue, it's going to be a tough sell for eastern Kentuckians struggling with drugs in their community.

Paul's comments on drugs are powerful campaign fodder for Democrats, but they are really more symptomatic of a larger ideological philosophy Paul espouses -- namely, less federal control and no earmarks. In a state that relies heavily on federal largess, that may not be a winning message in a general election -- even in a year in which voters have repeatedly expressed their distaste with politics as usual in Washington, D.C..

Democrats believe they have a golden quote to use against Paul in the most critical electoral region of the state. Republicans have to hope Paul can get past the drugs debate as soon as possible, re-focusing the race on a referendum on the job President Obama -- who is deeply unpopular in the state -- is doing.

By Aaron Blake  | August 25, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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