When Rand Paul pulled off a surprise win in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary, he bragged that he was carrying "a message from the Tea Party" that Washington was in for a shake-up. Less than 72 hours later, the ophthalmologist turned political phenom wasn't sending out messages so much as hiding out in a state of radioactive embarrassment. A day after his win, Paul had mused that the forced integration of Southern lunch counters by the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an unacceptable federal intrusion into the private sector. The following day, Paul announced that the Obama Administration's tough response to BP over the Gulf Coast oil spill was "un-American" and offered that "sometimes accidents happen."
By that time, Paul himself was starting to seem like an accident. Democrats gleefully chased the media ambulances as GOP leaders scrambled to distance themselves from the gory scene. But however this newcomer performs in the coming months, the fact remains that he is part of a larger family literally and figuratively of like-minded conservatives reshaping Republican politics and giving an unexpectedly complex twist to the 2010 election. Even if Paul keeps stumbling over his shoelaces, the antigovernment ideas that have inspired him and fueled his campaign aren't going away and they may gain strength as the U.S. debt problem deepens.
His outsider success is hardly unique in Republican circles this campaign season, after all. In Arizona, former Congressman J.D. Hayworth is mounting a strong, Tea Partybacked challenge to his party's last presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. Tea Party power forced Florida's moderate governor, Charlie Crist, to flee a Senate primary fight with young conservative star Marco Rubio and try an independent bid. And less than two weeks before Paul knocked off his opponent, Kentucky's secretary of state Trey Grayson, activists at a Utah GOP convention dumped three-term Senator Bob Bennett, long a reliable conservative vote, for such sins as flirting with compromise on Obama's health care plan and supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
Rand may be the talk of Washington at the moment, but his meek-mannered 74-year-old father Ron is in many ways the improbable godfather of the Tea Party movement. In a GOP lacking for compelling leaders, he may be the man with the most potential influence as the 2012 campaign approaches.
Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, with its message of limited government and its anti-Establishment ethos, created a kind of do-it-yourself model for the current activism shaking up politics around the country. The Paul campaign even inspired the first modern-day tea party that anyone can remember: a December 2007 antitax protest re-enacting the original Boston Tea Party on its 234th anniversary. (On that same day, Paul's fervent supporters raised an astounding $6 million online, a single-day record.) The message then, as now, was a revolt against government taxes and spending and what his supporters called "tyranny." "Dr. Paul was pushing for fiscal responsibility and limited government long before the Tea Party moniker was slapped on it," says John O'Hara, author of the book A New American Tea Party.
The tale of Rand Paul's stunning and now controversial success is really an outgrowth of his father's unlikely crusade. Whether or not Rand Paul wins in November, his father is sure to keep the movement's torch burning. And if Republican leaders don't like it? Tough. "Ron Paul's influence should be respected more than it is," says a Republican strategist aligned with a likely 2012 candidate. "The more the Establishment rolls its eyes at him and his supporters, the more motivated they become."
Ron Paul has always been a curious vessel for the pent-up frustrations he unleashes among his followers. Born in Pittsburgh, he earned a medical degree at Duke and began his adult life as an obstetrician. But he also developed a passion for libertarian philosophy, which preaches the power of individual liberty over almost every form of government action. He grew keen on the obscure theories of Austrian-school economists, who champion unfettered markets and individualism. Paul was finally moved to politics, he says, when Richard Nixon completed the U.S.'s abandonment of the gold standard. Believing that the American financial system had become a dangerous mirage, Paul, by then a Texas resident, first ran for Congress in 1976 and, after leaving the capital from 1985 to 1996, has represented the Gulf CoastGalveston area continuously since 1997.
For years, Paul was something of a running joke in Congress. Adopting a highly literal view of the Constitution including the argument that the government should do almost nothing beyond providing basic safety and security he opposed most spending bills, the Medicare and Medicaid programs, federal drug laws, the CIA and nearly all U.S. military action overseas. Nicknamed "Dr. No," Paul even opposed relief for Hurricane Katrina victims.
In 1988, Paul ran for President on the Libertarian ticket, bashing Ronald Reagan for letting deficits get out of control, but finished with just 0.5% of the vote. Twenty years later, Paul's views no longer seemed kooky: government spending soared even under a Republican Congress and President, leaving many conservatives fed up. At the same time, the human and financial toll of the Iraq war, which Paul decried as an act of imperialism, left some Republicans angry with the so-called neocon wing of their party. When Paul ran as a Republican in 2008, a new coalition of groups as varied as homeschoolers, active military personnel and zealous college kids went wild for his unpolished, taboo-breaking authenticity. With his jumbled syntax, reedy voice and wiry frame, Paul is the opposite of a state-of-the-art jut-jawed pol like Mitt Romney.