FRANKFORT, Ky. — State-level tea-party leaders who helped launch Sen. Rand Paul’s meteoric rise from obscure small-town eye doctor to nationally known conservative leader thought they had a sure winner again in Kentucky’s Republican gubernatorial primary.
Now some are miffed that national tea-party bigwigs didn’t step up to help Louisville businessman Phil Moffett, an articulate political outsider with telegenic good looks and a conservative philosophy. He lost Kentucky’s GOP primary on Tuesday to state Senate President David Williams, a career politician with more than two decades in the legislature.
“You’ve got to question how committed they really are to the tea-party movement if they’re unwilling to come in and help,” said Michael Maggard, a factory worker from Boonesborough who took time off to handpaint signs for Moffett. “If they had focused on this race, we would have pulled it off.”
A simple endorsement from the likes of Mr. Paul or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or any of several other national tea-party figures, Mr. Maggard said, would have generated needed campaign cash for Mr. Moffett to pay for TV spots, political consultants and many other necessities that his campaign went without.
Mr. Moffett, outspent 10-1, lost by 10 percentage points, a gap that campaign manager David Adams said could have been bridged with assistance from the national tea party, especially in an election that drew just 10 percent voter turnout.
“I think that hesitation on the part of some national leaders had a devastating impact on the campaign,” Mr. Adams said Wednesday.
At least two national tea-party leaders did show up, winning the allegiance of Kentucky groups. Former Alaska tea-party Senate candidate Joe Miller and former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack campaigned for Mr. Moffett in the state during brief visits.
Mr. Williams, who spent $1.2 million compared to Mr. Moffett’s $120,000, navigated around potentially troublesome personal issues to win the primary and the right to challenge incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear in November. Mr. Williams was helped by a third candidate, Louisville political powerhouse Bobbie Holsclaw, who drew 14 percent of the vote, enough to turn the election for Mr. Williams.
The GOP candidates differed little on key Republican issues, from cutting state spending to opposing abortion. In campaign appearances, Mr. Williams was able to avoid arguing with his Republican opponents and focus instead on attacking Mr. Beshear as ineffective. Mr. Moffett and Mr. Holsclaw didn’t attack Mr. Williams on a touchy personal issue involving his running mate, former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer.
Mr. Farmer’s wife, Rebecca, filed for divorce last month without giving a reason, triggering a whisper campaign of speculation about the cause of the split. Mr. Farmer, who was twice elected state agriculture commissioner, asked in a motion last month that the divorce petition be dismissed but, if not, that he receive joint custody of their three children.
Still, tea-party activists consider Tuesday’s election a major win for the movement in Kentucky. Mr. Moffett came much closer than polls predicted, and three other tea-party candidates won Republican nominations John Kemper for auditor, James Comer for agriculture commissioner and Bill Johnson for secretary of state. None of those races required the kind of campaign spending needed for a competitive gubernatorial bid. Mr. Comer, a state lawmaker, was the leading fundraiser at about $200,000.
“I am proud of the Kentucky tea party,” Lexington political blogger Mica Sims said. “We came within 10 points of knocking off the Republican Party of Kentucky’s golden boy. That is something to be totally proud of, and we did it on our own. We didn’t have help from the national folks.”
“We’re going to have fits and starts like this,” he said. “I remain greatly encouraged for the movement, and I think that establishment politicians overlook or try to ignore the tea party at their own peril.”
University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss agreed.