Rand Paul's Tea Party Triumph in Kentucky

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Joe Imel / AP

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul

On the campaign trail, Rand Paul repeatedly warned of a coming "Tea Party tidal wave." On Tuesday night it arrived. Paul notched a decisive win in Kentucky's Republican primary, dousing the hopes of the party establishment and signaling that the Tea Party movement could wield considerable clout in November. "I have a message from the Tea Party," Paul told supporters gathered at his victory party on the back porch of a Bowling Green country club. "A message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back."

The Bluegrass State showdown pitted the handpicked candidate of the Republican establishment against the standard bearer of the conservative insurgency. Paul, the son of the Texas Congressman, former GOP presidential candidate and libertarian icon Ron Paul, has never held political office. But he walloped Trey Grayson, the 38-year-old Secretary of State who was ushered by Kentucky's senior Senator, minority leader Mitch McConnell, toward the post vacated by outgoing Senator Jim Bunning. Paul, a 47-year-old eye surgeon who nabbed 59% of the vote, capitalized on name recognition, a steady stream of fierce anti-government rhetoric and the fervent backing of the Tea Party faithful, who framed his candidacy as a referendum on the movement's strength at a moment when the GOP is embroiled in a battle between its pragmatists and its ideological purists.

As the race unfolded, Republican bigwigs lined up to take sides. In addition to McConnell, Grayson drew the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Paul, by contrast, chalked up the endorsements of conservative kingmakers Sarah Palin and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint — whose willingness to break with party leadership and throw his weight behind Senate candidates like Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio has accentuated the internal struggle within the party.

For all of the race's star power, what shaped up as a marquee tussle morphed into a cakewalk, and the climax was relatively subdued. As they waited for Paul to take a podium surrounded by verdant lawns, a golf course and a lap pool, supporters in ties and sundresses quietly sipped drinks and munched on snacks. The result was never really in doubt — polls showed their candidate enjoying a double-digit lead going into the primary — but Paul backers were buoyant. "People don't understand the depth of the revolt that's taking place," says Jack Richardson, a former party chairman in Jefferson County. "A lot of people in the Beltway have been in a state of denial. This is going to wake them up a little bit."

Paul's speech in Bowling Green — a small city in the southern part of the state, two hours from Louisville — was far from electric, but it clearly connected. Flanked by his family — including his parents, whom he thanked for instilling in him "respect for the constitution" — Paul chastised Washington politicians for being out of step and ran through a litany of grievances against big government. He has pledged to slash federal agencies like the Department of Education, balance the budget, trim taxes, ban earmarks and introduce Congressional term limits — an idea that has found favor in this virulently anti-incumbent cycle. As the fiscal crisis in Greece has mushroomed, Paul has also invoked the ominous specter of a similarly chaotic collapse befalling the U.S.

With large swaths of the electorate disgusted by Washington gridlock, Paul's themes proved popular. Grayson was an adept fundraiser, but Tea Partyers lined Paul's coffers with small donations from all over the country. As the campaign crept to a close, Grayson's laments began to reflect his dwindling chances; he complained that Paul's lineage offered vital access to Fox News' airwaves, and derided his opponent as a "grandstander" apt to place Tea Party principles ahead of the values of Kentuckians. Grayson was also dogged by perceptions that he was a creature of the Republican establishment, despite the fact that he has never served in Washington. At the victory party, Paul supporters suggested Grayson was not a true conservative, noting his vote for Bill Clinton and his ties to party leaders.

Despite his resounding victory, political handicappers, state Democrats and Grayson backers have suggested that of the two Republican candidates, Paul would have a tougher time vanquishing his Democratic opponent. "I think Trey Grayson would be a stronger candidate in November," McConnell said last weekend. "But I expect Kentucky is going to be in a pretty Republican mood in the fall." Supporters gathered at the Bowling Green victory party shrugged off the prognosis. "The reason Trey Grayson lost is because of Mitch McConnell. People are fed up with his leadership in the Republican party," says Jody Forgy, a retiree from Morgantown, Ky.

Paul's opponent will be Attorney General Jack Conway, who was projected to have defeated Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo as results rolled in. But before contemplating the race awaiting them, Paul's supporters took a moment to celebrate a decisive win. "The Tea Party has spoken!" exclaimed a young mother as she shepherded her daughter through a packed crowd. "Grassroots America is becoming awakened to the fact that politicians in Washington are destroying our country," says Bobby Alexander, chairman of the Central Kentucky Tea Party Patriots. "They're upset, and they realize the only way to solve that problem is citizen engagement. We have to change the people who run the country, throw out the career politicians and restore the power to the people." It was the same message that earned Paul his landslide victory. "We are entering a day of reckoning," the Republican nominee said, "and this movement, this Tea Party movement, is a message to Washington that we're unhappy and that we want things done differently."