In a night of big political developments, the one that will echo for some time is the victory by Rand Paul in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s not often that someone leapfrogs a still-active and very famous congressional father to get a short track to the U.S. Senate. While it may have been over the top to speculate about a “Paul Dynasty,” as one writer did following a quirky Rasmussen poll in April that showed Ron Paul running even with Obama in 2012, the story of Paul père et fils is a definite crowd-pleaser.
Just as importantly, Rand Paul’s win over State Treasurer Trey Grayson epitomizes the major themes that are emerging around the 2010 elections. (Unlike, say, victories by more "politically safe" candidates like Indiana's Dan Coats.) Let’s review them :
(1) 2010 is the year that insurgents and outsiders overturn incumbents. Rand Paul is the ultimate outsider. An opthamologist who hasn’t run for office before, he set out to battle Grayson, who’s in his second term as a statewide elected official. And the Paul brand screams insurgent: Rand's old man ran the entire 2008 presidential race as an outsider heading up a movement of outsiders. Rand Paul didn’t beat an incumbent senator—in fact, the incumbent senator in Kentucky, Jim Bunning, endorsed him—but it was Trey Grayson who looked like an establishmentarian, after he received endorsements from Dick Cheney and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
(2) 2010 is the year of the Tea Party. Sure, other major Republican candidates this year have worn the Tea Party label—but they haven't done so very well. TP favorites lost the Republican Senate primaries in Illinois and Indiana. Scott Brown, who got into office with Tea Party help, quickly turned out to be a moderate Republican. And even Marco Rubio of Florida has declined to follow the Tea Party faithful into a potentially suicidal endorsement of Arizona’s new immigration law. Paul, on the other hand, is a true outsider with sterling ideological bona fides. His win embodies the kind of success that Tea Party folk hope to achieve.
(3) 2010 is “about” fiscal conservatism and little else. Paul is a nice example of the trend—real or imagined—in which economic issues have eclipsed concerns about social and foreign policy among Tea Partiers and conservatives. He brushed off Grayson's efforts to make the primary turn on abortion or foreign policy: Republican voters apparently didn't care that Rand's “cuckoo” views about national security are far outside the post-9/11 GOP mainstream. (On his campaign website, the section on “National Defense” focuses heavily on border security, while its foreign policy content is limited to attacks on the U.N., the IMF, and the World Bank.) Meanwhile, Paul has been relentlessly radical on fiscal issues—demanding an immediate balanced budget, for example—despite Grayson’s warnings that Kentuckians will lose all their federal goodies with a guy like Paul representing them in the Senate.
You can see why the media will treat Rand Paul as an icon of the political times between now and November—and beyond that, if he wins (he has quite a lead in general election polls). But even more importantly: Beyond the short-term buzz of 2010, Rand Paul's victory illustrates some deeper truths about latter-day conservatism and the Republican Party.
For one thing, Rand Paul didn’t draw on help from independent voters to execute his conquest of Grayson and McConnell. The primary that Paul just won was closed, and Kentucky also cut off changes in party registration for this primary back in December. So, if Paul’s victory represents a humiliating defeat for the Republican establishment, it was a defeat inflicted by Republicans themselves, not by the traditional independents who back "insurgents" like Ross Perot.
Furthermore, there’s evidence that Paul’s victory was driven by a trend that’s been going on in the GOP for decades, long before it occurred to anyone to brandish tea bags: the effort by “movement conservatives” to take over the GOP and root out heresy. Certainly, the endorsements that Paul won from Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint—and from Christian Right warhorse James Dobson, who originally endorsed Grayson—reinforce that impression. And check out this nugget from PPP’s pre-election survey of Kentucky Republicans:
A Paul victory will be a clear signal that Kentucky Republicans want the party to move further to the right. 32% of likely primary voters think the party is too liberal and Paul has a 71-21 lead with them that accounts for almost his entire polling lead.
This sort of finding raises the broader question of whether the Tea Party movement, for all its professions of populism and independence, is in many respects just a radicalized segment of the conservative GOP base (see John Judis’s new TNR piece for a learned discussion of that proposition). But whatever the “story” of conservatism turns out to be in retrospect, Rand Paul is likely to figure prominently, and colorfully, in that tale.