News & Politics

Tea Party's Rand Paul Squashes GOP Candidate in KY Primary

Tea Party libertarian Rand Paul handed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell his head in Kentucky's primary. A lurch to the right, or just an anti-establishment election?

In the wake of Tea Party libertarian Rand Paul's triumph in the Kentucky primary for U.S. Senate, hundreds of journalists are writing the same lead, something about a rebuke to the Washington establishment, whose Republican members endorsed Paul's opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. True enough, that.

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But Paul's triumph -- he trounced Grayson 59-35 percent -- represents far more than a smack upside the head of Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator: It represents the first real toe-hold that the old lions of the New Right have really gotten inside the Republican Party proper. Nearly the moment Paul's victory was secured, Richard Viguerie, one of the founders of the Young Americans for Freedom, fired off a press release touting Paul's victory as a vote of "no confidence" in McConnell, who, despite his hard-line parliamentary obstructionism, is deemed too much of a softie for the far right.

"The 2010 elections will be a tsunami of Biblical proportions," Viguerie went on to predict in his statement.


It could be said that something of an anti-establishment spirit prevailed on the Democratic side of Kentucky's senate primary races, as well, with Jack Conway eking out a win, 44-43 percent, over Lieutenant Gov. Dan Mongiardo, the physician who nearly beat then-incumbent Sen. Jim Bunning as the Democratic nominee six years ago. But Conway is hardly an outsider -- he's the state attorney general, and he won endorsements from former U.S. Senator Wendell Ford and Rep. Ben Chandler, as Kentucky's House speaker and the bulk of the labor unions. Conway may have been the progressive choice, but he's part of his state's Democratic establishment.

Rand Paul, the Tea Party candidate, will no doubt be touted as something new and fresh by political pundits, when, in fact, he represents something quite old in American politics, the steady march to the right of American politics since the Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964. His platform is indistinguishable from the one on which his father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., ran for president in 2008: ending the Federal Reserve, the Department of Education and withdrawing all American troops from overseas. He hails from the right's so-called libertarian strain (not exactly libertarian if you're a woman looking to exercise your reproductive rights), which means he also believes in legalizing drugs (but Kentucky voters may not have caught on to that fact).

Paul opposes all earmarks, a popular theme among the Tea Party crowd, as well as the stimulus bill, TARP, the health-care reform bill, and pretty much most of the funding for the federal government. He wants to enact a law that requires lawmakers to read all bills they vote on, and another that requires all bills to spell out their constitutional provenance. Oh, and a balanced-budget amendment.

Everything Old Is New Again

In his victory speech, Rand Paul (named for the author Ayn Rand, according to Newsweek's Howard Fineman), lauded his dad for teaching him about the glories of the U.S. Constitution. But Paul the elder seems to embrace the constitutional guidance of a couple of characters of concern: John Birch Society President John McManus, and Constitution Party founder Howard Phillips, both of whom keynoted at the Ron Paul for President convention in Minneapolis a year and a half ago. Like Viguerie, Phillips cut his political teeth on the Goldwater campaign, for which the John Birch Society helped pave the way.

The Birch Society, something of a Cold War relic, is now in a state of resurgence. Known for being pro-segregationist and paranoidly anti-Communist, its history is of a piece with the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Among its founders was Fred G. Koch, the mogul of Koch Industries, whose son, David, is now a major funder of the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, one of the two notable astroturfing groups organizing the Tea Party's discontented. (Here's a profile of Rand Paul in the New American, the Birch Society's membership publication.)

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Howard Phillips' Conservative Caucus acted as something of a messaging clearinghouse for what would become the Tea Party movement, raising questions about Barack Obama's birth certificate, and painting the first black presidential candidate of a major party as a socialist.

Tonight, Paul invoked the latter theme, a bit more subtly, in his victory speech."We now have a president...who apologizes for America's greatness," Paul said. "We have a president who went to Copenhagen (for the climate summit) and appeared with Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez and others -- Evo Morales -- to apologize for the industrial revolution.They say -- these petty dictators say -- that to stop climate change, it's about ending capitalism..."

In naming the heads of state of Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Bolivia, Paul lumped Obama in with one black African despot and two brown Latino socialists. Apparently, none of the white heads of state -- not even the socialist ones -- came to mind as proxies for Paul's idea of the president.

But there's more to Howard Phillips' constitutionalism than just virulent anti-socialism and white nativism. Phillips is an acolyte of John Rousas Rushdoony, the father of Christian Reconstructionism, a radical authoritarian theology that seeks to reclaim the law of the Hebrew Bible, laid out in the Book of Leviticus, as the law of the land -- right down to the stoning of adulterers and "practicing homosexuals." Rushdoony also argued for the separation of the races.

While Paul himself shows no sign of embracing Reconstructionism, he did invoke the language of Leviticus during the campaign to explain his stance on reproductive rights. "I believe abortion is an abomination," he told the Associated Press, language used time and again by Howard Phillips, whose U.S. Taxpayers Party (the precursor to the current Constitution Party) was deeply connected to the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue in the 1990s. Paul promised to "cast every vote in favor of protecting life." He also stated his support for a "human life amendment" to the Constitution.

And The Winner Is...Jim DeMint

At this moment, Rand Paul is riding a wave of voter discontent with Washington, and a sense of resentment among a certain segment of the white middle class that they're somehow more screwed than others in today's teetering economy. But it remains to be seen whether or not he can sustain his momentum once his views are better known.

A poll conducted by Research 2000 for the Daily Kos last week showed Paul with just a 3-point advantage in a match-up against Conway. But once it becomes known that he opposes federal agricultural subsidies, the voters of Kentucky -- a rural state -- may find the Democrat more to their liking.

But the Tea Party's Kentucky triumph is not just about this election, or just about Kentucky, or just about the Tea Party. It's about the ascendancy, once again, of a virus that has been in remission, that of a destructive strain of right-wing, authoritarian capitalism. As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman noted in Monday's New York Times, this is not a new movement: it's just the latest expression of a very old one -- one whose leaders have been content to gain their ground inch by inch. For the old men of the far right, even a loss by Rand Paul in the general election for U.S. Senate will be regarded as a victory. In the home state of the Senate minority leader, they vanquished the leader's own candidate, and cast themselves as kingmakers. For now, they will be content to simply take over the Republican Party, knowing that their day will come.

Sooner or later, the American people decide to throw the bums out, whether the bums are Democrats or Republicans. If they succeed in changing the DNA of the Republican Party now, sooner or later, they will prevail as the nation's leaders.

The Rand Paul victory does not represent Mitch McConnell's only loss to his further-right foes in this year's Senate campaigns, just perhaps his most poignant. Coming on the heels of the ouster of Charlie Crist, McConnell's candidate, from the Florida primary at the hands of the Tea Party-backed Marco Rubio, and the loss of Utah's Bob Bennett at a Tea Party-stacked state party convention, McConnell's latest loss could signal a loss of confidence in his leadership.

If there's a winner in the Republican Party tonight, it's Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who has so far backed all the winners with his rogue PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund. Are you ready for Leader DeMint?

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.