WASHINGTON — If Kentucky Republican Senate hopeful Rand Paul, a darling of the tea party movement, sails to victory in Kentucky's May 18 GOP primary, his victory could prove a harbinger of things to come during this November's mid-term elections.
A Paul win over the Republican establishment's favored candidate — Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson — would help measure the tea party's clout as a grassroots insurgency powered by disgruntled conservatives who bemoan what they see as an unprecedented expansion in federal government.
“I think they're ready for a lot of people to come home — that includes incumbents,” said Paul, the son of 2008 presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. "There's a tea party tidal wave coming, and when it comes it's going to sweep a lot of people out."
But a lot of that may depend on whether Paul, a 47-year-old eye surgeon from the south central Kentucky city of Bowling Green, can avoid some potential land mines that have also drawn attention nationally.
Last month, tea party-affiliated health care bill protesters gathered outside the U.S. Capitol shouted racial epithets at Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, and spat on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who is also African American. The protesters also used a slur as they confronted Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an openly gay member of Congress.
During protests last summer, demonstrators displayed a poster depicting Obama as an African witch doctor complete with headdress, above the words "OBAMACARE coming to a clinic near you."
Paul, who has been a fixture at tea party events since the movement’s infancy, says he does not condone such actions. He points out that the group’s rallies are a “sort of open mike night” where the actions of a few have led to “a lot of misconception nationally about the Tea Party movement.”
His Web site coyly asks whether he’s a “tea party poster child?” and his stump speeches utilize anti-big government tea party buzzwords like “Obamacare.” But he stops short of acknowledging outright membership.
Nate Hodson, Grayson's spokesman, says it's disingenuous for Paul to assert that he's a maverick grassroots champion when he's raised hundreds of thousands in campaign cash from his dad's list of out of state donors “Rand Paul’s ties to Washington are much closer than he’s letting on to Kentuckians,” Hodson said. “Rand Paul is a member of a long time Washington family and he’s running as the heir apparent to the family business.”
The amorphous nature of the tea party movement makes it easier for a hopeful to sail under its banner. Anybody who opposes the expansion of government and is against the Obama administration’s platform is invited, said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
“Politicians are very opportunistic. Unless they are being endorsed by some disreputable organization, they will generally accept support," Baker said. "But the nightmare of every politician is you’re photographed with your arm around the national president of the man-boy love association.
“You accept whatever dividends you get and you keep your fingers crossed that your supporters don’t go crazy.”
Tea party-backed candidates are making similar gambits in Arizona in the closely watched race that pits former TV personality-turned-congressman-turned-conservative radio talk host J.D. Hayworth against the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. In the Florida race for the U.S. Senate, tea party backing is helping former state House speaker Marco Rubio mount a surprisingly competitive challenge to Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican Party favorite son and rising star. Rubio won the endorsement of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani on Monday.
The tea party vs. the Republican establishment theme is also playing out in races in California and Utah.
In the Kentucky race, Paul was endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, which in tea party circles is akin to being named to Oprah’s favorite things list. Former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed Grayson, calling him “the real conservative in this race,” and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has long lent Grayson both his blessing and his support.
Paul leveraged his tea party support and his father’s donor network to pull in $2 million, more than the $1.7 million Grayson pulled in with the help of GOP heavy hitters. Paul is also ahead in several polls, including a SurveyUSA poll from early March that showed Paul garnering the support of 42 percent of likely Republican voters, compared to Grayson’s 27 percent.
“It’s the perfect storm. It’s me being in the right place, with the right ideas, at the right time. This wouldn’t have happened six years ago,” Paul said. “It dawned on me at last year’s April 15th rally in Bowling Green. I walked up to the square thinking there would only be about 20 or 30 people and there were several hundred people there. I thought, ‘Huh, we might be on to something.'”
According to a recent Quinnipiac University national poll, 74 percent of tea party adherents are either registered Republicans or independents who lean Republican.
Republican strategists worry that contentious primary battles, like the one in Kentucky, could exhaust campaign coffers and, in races where tea party-backed candidates emerge victorious, could make the party vulnerable to big losses in the fall’s general election.
Democrats are seizing on this and are doubling efforts to take a strong and critical position against the tea party movement. This week the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued a statement calling on Paul to say whether he stands with his “out-of-state tea party backers or with Kentucky senior citizens, by taking a position on the proposal to abolish Social Security put forth by tea party leaders recently on 'Larry King Live.' ”
"For a Republican to win they have to not only get regular Republicans and the tea party Republicans. They have to make sure they keep all the people who may be offended by these tactics for the general elections,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Rand and other candidates can accomplish this by trying to find “mainstream positions supported by the tea party. There aren’t a lot of people endorsing increasing mainstream debt. And you avoid extreme positions. Most of the tea party affiliates don’t identify with the fringe.”
Mary Jo Leake, a 63-year-old nurse and grandmother of 13 who co-chairs the Bowling Green Tea Party with her husband, Wesley, feels Paul is up to the task of pulling together support should he go on to the general election. But she also doesn’t appreciate “the kooks out there who are making us look bad. Sure, she and her husband disagree on whether Obama is a part of some broader conspiracy theory — she says yes, he says no — but they are both proud and active supporters of the movement.
“We’re not radicals and Nazis. We’re people who used to sit and yell at the TV and we’ve gotten up off the couch. We’re people who believe in the Constitution and our Founding Fathers’ vision of the nation,” Leake said. “That seems to be what (Paul) believes in. Men like Rand, we believe, have the ability to change our country to what it should be. His core values are like mine. I know what his father believes in, and even though he and his father don’t agree on everything, it’s what he was taught and it’s his values.”