Rand Paul, Tea Party Messiah

BOWLING GREEN, KY -- Rand Paul didn't wait for the national media to frame his upset win in Tuesday's GOP primary. He went ahead and did it himself. "I have a message from the Tea Party," the 47-year-old ophthalmologist told revelers at his hometown victory rally, after knocking off the establishment choice, Secretary of State Trey Grayson. "We've come to take our government back." It's hard to know who was more eager for this outcome, the candidate or a press corps hoping to imbue the victory with drama and import, and thereby perpetuate the year's most exciting political story. If there was any doubt that Rand Paul is the face of the Tea Party, there shouldn't be any longer.

Paul's is a captivating story. A political neophyte, he raised millions of dollars from followers of his father, the Texas congressman and dark horse presidential candidate Ron Paul, and beat Kentucky's powerful GOP machine that is controlled by the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Paul consistently outflanked Grayson as the more conservative candidate on balancing the budget, imposing term limits, cutting government and eliminating earmarks (this despite the state's heavy dependence on federal largesse). He was also the more media savvy, winning the Fox News primary for the most air time and endearing himself to conservative activists. His cable news presence had the corollary effect of introducing him to the national media, which recognized a star. In a year when voters are fed up and angry, Paul embodied the national mood. And his campaign shrewdly encouraged the idea that something was happening that was both significant and an affront to the sensibility of the media elite. (Paul's campaign manager cheerfully invited me to bring a gun to the victory rally and let it be known that I wouldn't be alone in doing so.)

The idea that Rand Paul's victory heralds an imminent Tea Party wave soon to sweep the country makes a great deal of sense if you've watched the proceedings unfold on television. But it doesn't make nearly as much sense if you've been in Kentucky these last few days. Here, the GOP primary has been nearly invisible. You have to hunt to find a "Rand Paul" or "Trey Grayson" sign. Television ads are sparse owing to Kentucky's relatively expensive media market, which includes Nashville and Cincinnati. Independents and Democrats were barred from the closed primary, so they never tuned in. In Louisville and Lexington, the Senate primaries took a backseat to the mayoral race. In smaller towns and rural areas, they were eclipsed by important local patronage jobs, like county judge and sheriff.

There was certainly activity geared toward the GOP primary. But the Rand Paul rallies I attended in mid-sized cities like Paducah and Bowling Green drew crowds of only a hundred so, and they were far more subdued than the angry Tea Party masses portrayed on cable television. Grayson's crowds were even smaller. What was most notable about a race that was captivating the national media was how little it seemed to penetrate the consciousness of most Kentuckians. It was a big a deal only to a small group of energized Republicans. But more Democrats voted (about 500,000) than Republicans (350,000). The disparity between the media's expectation and the reality on the ground was a source of no small amusement for Kentucky's political veterans. "We're all for having you here to cover the Tea Party," a Democratic consultant genially explained. "Having y'all spend your money helps the tax base."

Paul's win is significant, and a high-water mark for the Tea Party. Unlike Doug Hoffman, who embraced the label in an upstate New York House election last November and lost, or Scott Brown, who won a Senate seat with help from Tea Party activists and then turned his back on them, Rand Paul embraced the Tea Party and won--and he's not going to abandon it. Paul has established that the Tea Party can be a disruptive force. In Kentucky, as elsewhere, the Republican establishment is having fits. But whether Paul or any other candidate can carry a general election remains an open question. Until that happens, the notion that Paul's victory portends a Tea Party wave is still cable news hype.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.