The Party Crashers: Behind the New Republican Revival

How a new breed of Republican candidates — including Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Meg Whitman — tapped into voter rage and upset the Establishment

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Peter Hapak for Time

Rand Paul

1. The Upstart
It was the winter of 2009, and the echoes of "Yes, we can!" still reverberated across the land. Barack Obama had just been elected President with more than 53% of the vote — a huge number for a Democrat, the biggest in more than 40 years. In Congress, the Democrats had blitzed their opponents for the second time in a row. They now occupied 54 more seats in the House and 12 more in the Senate than they had held a mere 28 months earlier.

You might not have known it by following the news in those days, but Republicans still existed. Most were just trying to figure out how to make their way in that hostile environment. One of them, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, reckoned something along the lines of: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. He appeared onstage with the new President on the eve of a congressional vote to spend nearly $800 billion on economic stimulus and liberal initiatives. On that sunny Florida day, Crist heartily endorsed the bill. For good measure, he gave Obama a hug.

Another Florida Republican had a different idea. His name was Marco Rubio. He was the baby-faced former speaker of the Florida legislature. Well-wired Floridians knew that Rubio was thinking about challenging Crist for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and they also knew that this was quixotic because Crist had at least a 30-point lead in the polls, plus friends and money and endorsements from powerful Republicans around the country.

But Rubio saw an opportunity in that hug. If one possible Republican strategy was to embrace the Democratic spending agenda, surely there was a case to be made for opposing it. Rubio decided to "stand up to this Big Government agenda, not be co-opted by it," and three months after The Hug, tossed his hat into the ring. The date was May 5, 2009.

Looking back, that was the day the 2010 election truly began — not just the campaign for a Senate seat from Florida but the broad national campaign for control of Congress and the direction of the country. Rubio's decision to wage a philosophical battle for the soul of the Florida GOP was a catalyst for the surprising and outrageous events that followed. He became a darling of the nascent Tea Party movement and a point man in the movement's purge of the GOP establishment. Rubio led the way for a dust-kicking herd of dark-horse candidates — some thoroughbreds, some nags. And most of all, Rubio symbolized the fact that this year's midterms have become a referendum on such fundamental issues as the role of government and the size of the public debt.

Midterm elections are often just rough measurements of the public's mood and the President's popularity. But this year, pressed by an uprising on the right, the election has become a fight for the identity of the Republican Party. In a sense, 2010 has turned into Act II of the 2008 GOP drama, in which the free-spending George W. Bush was barely welcome at his own party's convention and the nomination went to a man famous for flouting party loyalty. As in Hamlet, the action ended with most of the main characters forgotten or dead. Now we're seeing how an empty stage gets repopulated, as conservatives across the country have elbowed their way into the spotlight, some ready for their star turn, others stumbling over their lines.

The theme of the drama is clear. In an age of Big Government solutions to crushing public problems, the new script for the GOP is adapted from the famous words of the late William F. Buckley Jr., conservative guru. The Republican Party is standing athwart the Age of Obama, yelling, Stop! The party may not have an agenda, entirely, but it certainly has a battle cry. As Rubio has put it, "We have reached a point in our history when we must decide if we are to continue on the free-market, limited-government path that has made us exceptional or if we are prepared to follow the rest of the world down the road of government dependency."

For embattled Democrats, facing the looming loss of the House of Representatives and a much weakened position in the Senate, this is rich. They can't help feeling that talk of fiscal discipline from the GOP is like a Sunday-morning temperance sermon delivered by a Saturday-night drunk. It's especially galling because they believe the mess of broken glassware and dirty ashtrays is being blamed on them. And the GOP insurgents couldn't agree more. As Tea Party rock star Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general of Virginia, declared to roisterous cheers at a recent rally: "I don't think there'd be a Tea Party if the Republican Party had been a party of limited government in the first part of this decade."

We'll read the public's reaction on Election Day, but the verdict inside the GOP has already been rendered. Republicans propose to take a fresh shot at being the party of smaller government (or no government), and anyone who won't sing that hymn is being thrown out of the choir. The budget-stomping bull of New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, is the party's new role model, while in the GOP stronghold of Utah, longtime Senator Bob Bennett was rudely dumped simply because he engaged in earmarking and voted for the bank bailout. Small-government purists have captured GOP nominations for major offices from New York to Alaska, Colorado to Kentucky.

"Look, the time to go along and get along is over," House Republican conference chairman Mike Pence of Indiana said in an Oct. 21 radio interview. In other words, don't look for a return to the wheeling and dealing of the Bush years. "We've got a cavalry of men and women headed to Washington, D.C., that are going to stand with us," Pence said, and there will be "no compromise on stopping runaway spending, deficits and debt. There will be no compromise on repealing Obamacare."

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