May 18, 2010 9:52 PM
LOUISVILLE (AP) - Rand Paul overwhelmed Republican establishment favorite Trey Grayson in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, a closely watched race that was a test of the tea party movement's strength.
Paul, the son of former presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, gave tea party activists a key win in a statewide election that could embolden the fledgling political movement in other states. With 92 percent of precincts reporting, Paul was leading with 59 percent to Grayson's 35 percent.
On the Democratic side, Attorney General Jack Conway held a thin lead - 45 percent to 43 percent - over Lt. Gov. Jack Conway.
"It's just a tremendous mandate for the tea party," Paul told The Associated Press shortly before he gave a public victory speech Tuesday night in Bowling Green. "It cannot be overstated that people want something new; they don't want the same old, same old politicians and I think they think the system is broken and needs new blood."
Paul, a 47-year-old Bowling Green eye surgeon, had never before run for office and turned to the Internet fundraising model used by his father to pay for his campaign. Grayson stayed competitive drawing heavy financial support from traditional GOP donors inside Kentucky.
The Kentucky election was being watched around the country, especially after tea party activists helped to defeat three-term Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah and forced Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to abandon the GOP to make an independent run for the Senate.
Paul began the race as a long shot against Grayson, the GOP establishment candidate and perceived front-runner in the race to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, a 78-year-old former major league pitcher who opted not to seek a third term under pressure from Republican leaders who considered him politically vulnerable. Bunning ended up bucking them by endorsing Paul.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also supported Paul, while Grayson received endorsements from establishment leaders Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Palin told AP in a telephone interview that Paul's victory is a "wake up call for the country."
"This is a real time of awakening for America," she said. "We have an opportunity to not embrace the status quo but to shake things up."
The state's GOP establishment immediately rallied around Paul, with Grayson pledging to support him.
"We'll be standing side by side on Saturday at the unity rally," Grayson said, referring to an upcoming Republican rally in Frankfort.
"Now Kentucky Republicans will unite in standing against the overreaching policies of the Obama Administration," McConnell said. "We are spiraling further into unsustainable debt and Kentucky needs Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate because he will work every day to stop this crippling agenda."
Paul's father, attending his son's victory party at a Bowling Green country club, said the win reflects the growth of the tea party and the freedom movement.
"This is great symbolism and a great reality that the country is shifting in our direction," Ron Paul said.
Paul built his campaign on a handful of issues that showed key differences between him and Grayson. Among them, Paul promised to vote only for a balanced budget, to eliminate congressional earmarks, and to institute term limits. Grayson said it isn't practical to vote only for a balanced budget, objected to the elimination of earmarks and opposed term limits.
Both voiced support for the coal industry and the jobs it brings to Kentucky, where the unemployment rate has been hovering at 10.7 percent since January, about a point above the national rate.
Murray resident Bill Osburn said he voted for Paul because "he's not a politician."
"I'm against the establishment. They're all crooked, unreliable and selfish for power," said Osburn, 79, a military retiree. "We need citizen representatives, not political politicians."
Although Kentucky is solidly Democratic by voter registration, it tends to vote Republican in federal races. The GOP holds both of the state's Senate seats and four of six House seats, and Republican John McCain carried the state in last year's presidential election with 57 percent of the vote.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)