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Rand Paul's Presidential Bid Altered Kentucky's Political Landscape

Rand Paul returns to the Kentucky campaign trail relatively unscathed, despite worries from his fellow Republicans and critiques from Democrats that he's devoted too much of his time to running for president, political analysts say.

Paul suspended his presidential bid on Wednesday. The impact of his White House aspirations on the national conversation remains to be seen, but the presidential bid did reshape some aspects of politics in Kentucky.

Republicans here are now left with a strange residue of Paul’s campaign for executive office: a presidential caucus that would have allowed him to run for White House and the U.S. Senate at the same time.

Scott Lasley, chair of the Warren County Republican Party, said even without its home-state candidate, the caucus — the first of its kind for the state GOP — will be exciting for Republicans because it’s two months earlier than the primary.

“Hopefully the race will still be undecided and maybe be able to attract the attention of some candidates, and have voters actually have some impact on the ultimate outcome,” Lasley said.

Kentucky's May presidential primaries have historically had little bearing on the nomination process.

The Republican Party of Kentucky said Paul will still appear on the ballot because no mechanism exists to remove the names of the 11 candidates who have signed up.

Paul engineered the caucus switch because state law forbids political candidates from appearing on the ballot twice. He would have appeared as a candidate for U.S. Senate on the primary ballot.

Lasley said Paul’s departure from the presidential campaign might make Kentucky a more competitive battleground because his supporters will be up for grabs.

“The fact that Sen. Paul is not a frontrunner for the race makes Kentucky even more competitive, and there’s more incentive for candidates to come in and compete for the 42 delegates that are going to be decided based on those results,” Lasley said.

Paul’s political attention is now entirely focused on winning a second term in the Senate.

For months, political analysts and others said his attention to the presidential race could end up hurting him in Kentucky.

Paul will face two political newcomers in the Republican primary and, if he wins there, the survivor of a seven-way Democratic primary that includes the mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray.

Former state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, a Democrat and attorney at Frost Brown Todd, said he believes Paul’s White House bid has opened the Senate race to a strong Democratic challenger.

“The nature of being out of state and focusing on the concerns of people in Iowa and New Hampshire has hurt his standing in Kentucky,” Miller said.

Paul was elected to the Senate in 2010. The son of Ron Paul, a favorite of the GOP's libertarian faction, Rand Paul rode a wave of Tea Party support to beat then-Attorney General Jack Conway by 8 percentage points.

Over the course of his first term, Paul distinguished himself in the Senate with libertarian and isolationist views on surveillance and foreign policy. He was the winner of the Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll three years in a row and was famously declared “the most interesting man in politics” by Time Magazine in 2014.

But over the course of 2015, Paul’s brand grew out of favor as the threat of terrorism at home and abroad grew.

“So much of his core base realized that maybe he wasn’t the guy that should be their leader,” Miller said. “They went with other candidates, and I think you’re going to see that really hurt him with fundraising nationally and could hurt him here Kentucky as well.”

Paul's two Senate primary challengers — Lexington financial analyst James Gould and Stephen Slaughter, an engineer from Louisville — will have to overcome his significantly higher profile.

In the general election, Paul will likely face Lexington Mayor Gray, a wealthy businessman who has shown that he’s willing to self-fund his political campaigns.

Soon after Paul dropped out of the presidential race, Gray criticized Paul for not being a “full-time senator.”

"Paul spent years preparing for his presidential campaign and then took even more time away from Kentucky to pursue his personal ambitions,” Gray said. “Now that he’s failed to catch fire with voters in other states, he’s coming back. Well, we deserve to be more than just a fall-back plan. And we certainly deserve a senator whose focus is on Kentucky, not one focused on planning his next run for president."

But Steve Voss, a University of Kentucky political science professor, said Paul’s presidential run may have helped him more than it hurt him.

“What we all saw was him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with famous and powerful, important people, and that gave him visibility and helped sustain his name recognition in Kentucky at a time when we weren’t much interested in the Senate election,” Voss said.

Paul has $1.4 million in his Senate campaign account, and he'll be allowed to transfer some of the $1.27 million remaining in his presidential campaign account as long as the donors aren’t put over their individual per-election contribution limits.

Gray hasn’t reported any fundraising numbers yet, but it’s expected that he will be able to supplement donations with his personal wealth. He contributed $800,000 to his first race for mayor and $250,000 to his second run.

The outcome of the race will depend on the issues voters care about, Voss said.

“Is it about same-sex marriage and abortion and things like that? In which case the swing voters tend to be Republican," Voss said. "Is it about pocketbook issues, jobs, government programs that come back home to help the poor? Then you see these voters not being so conservative and voting for a Democrat like outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear."