Why Rand Paul's victory is important

Rand Paul's victory provides evidence that the tea party influence is real, and may hold lessons about negative campaigning.

Ed Reinke/AP
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate, answers questions after voting in Bowling Green, Ky., on election day 2010.

Republican Rand Paul has won the race for US Senate in Kentucky, according to an Associated Press analysis of exit poll data. It’s an important victory both for the developing Paul family political dynasty (his father is Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas) and for the tea party movement.

Why? Well, Dr. Paul is the first of the prominent tea party-backed candidates in this election cycle to be able to add “Senator-elect” to his title. And he is not just a traditional politician who has cultivated tea party connections. He is a thorough libertarian – enough of an ideologue in that sense that Democrats thought they could label him as too extreme for Kentucky and make that label stick.

They couldn’t, apparently.

After all, in the past Paul has opposed agricultural subsidies and expressed doubts about the need for federal mine safety regulations. Both are important to many blue-collar Kentucky workers. At one point he said he did not think illegal drugs were a problem in eastern Kentucky. Most law enforcement officials in that area would tell you differently.

But his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Jack Conway, was not able to capitalize on these opinions. Then, with the race still tight and the election only weeks away, Conway made a bizarre move and ran an attack ad questioning Paul’s religious conviction.

Yes, this was the infamous “Aqua Buddha” spot. It referred to a college prank in which Paul and some friends allegedly kidnapped a woman and made her worship an “Aqua Buddha.”

Paul reacted with outrage about this move. Pundits of all political persuasions blasted the ad as beyond the pale. And the polls moved, perhaps as a result, with Paul then forging into a lead he would not relinquish.

What does Paul’s victory tell us about Election 2010?

One, it may indicate that the tea party influence is for real, and voters will opt for a tea party philosophy they feel in tune with overall, despite individual aspects they don’t agree with, or candidate quirks.

Two, it may show that it is possible to lose via negative campaigning. Perhaps Democrat Conway was already slipping, and felt he needed to take a risk with the “Aqua Buddha” ad if he was to catch up. But many voters appear to have thought he was making far too much out of something that sounded on the surface like a typical college stunt.

Three, it could indicate that the tea party caucus indeed will be a significant force in the next Senate. It’s true that many GOP Senate candidates expected to win on Tuesday are traditional establishment types, and the tea party favorites are a minority within the party. But enough new tea party Senators may show up for the next Congress that the Tea Party Caucus has to find a significantly larger room.

The GOP establishment has already reached out its hand to new victor Paul. (These two haven't always seen eye-to-eye.) Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement said, "After a spirited campaign, voters in the Bluegrass State rebuked the Democrats' misleading attacks and reckless spending agenda and elected Dr. Rand Paul as their US Senator this evening..."

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