Rand Paul’s victory in this week’s Kentucky GOP Senate primary was hailed as a shocking upset, but given his large lead in the polls, it wasn’t. What was shocking was his victory speech. Paul didn’t use it to thank Kentucky Republicans for giving him their party’s nomination or to make a pitch to the rest of Kentuckians to vote for him in November. Instead, he spent most of it waxing eloquent about the tea party and its impact on America. “I have a message, a message from the tea party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We’ve come to take our government back,” Paul said. “The tea-party movement is huge, the mandate of our victory tonight is huge; what you have done and what we are doing can transform America.”
Until Paul’s speech, the first rule of the tea party was don’t talk about the tea party—at least not if you were a politician who wanted to win the vote of anyone who doesn’t DVR Glenn Beck and own multiple copies of Going Rogue. The best way for a candidate to court tea-partyers, the theory went, was with a dog whistle, not a bullhorn, lest the candidate alienate non-tea-partyers. So when Scott Brown won Massachusetts’s special Senate election in January—thanks in large part to the efforts of tea-party activists—he pointedly did not thank them in his victory speech, making sure the words “tea party” never passed his lips. Meanwhile, Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio, whose popularity with tea-partyers helped drive Charlie Crist out of the GOP, ducks the label. “When you talk about the tea party,” he told one interviewer who’d just called him a “tea-party senator,” “remember, I’m a Republican.”
All of which has led to a good deal of public ambivalence—if not outright confusion—about what exactly the tea party is. Although the media and political junkies obsess about it, most regular people don’t. When the New York Times conducted a poll about the tea party in April, the paper found that half of Americans had heard “nothing” or “not much” about it.
But Paul’s Senate candidacy will likely change that. That’s because he seems less interested in representing Kentucky in the United States Senate than in representing the tea party to the United States. “People are already saying, Now you need to weave and dodge, now you need to switch, now you need to give up your conservative message, you need to become a moderate, you need to give up the tea party, you need to distance yourself,” Paul said in his victory speech to a chorus of boos. “The tea-party message is not a radical message, it’s not an extreme message.” Paul—who has called for the abolition of the Federal Reserve and the Department of Education and spent the first few days of the general-election campaign arguing the wrong side of the civil-rights debate circa 1964—is going to make sure his campaign is a test of that.
His main rival to lead the tea party is superstar Sarah Palin, who’s deft with the tweet but doesn’t seem to be interested in something as low-paying and banal as elected office anymore. (Besides, the Times poll found that 47 percent of self-identified tea-partyers don’t believe Palin “would have the ability to be an effective president.”) But Paul, with his sure-footed sense of his own destiny and tin ear for how unacceptable his views are to many, if not most, Americans (not to mention Kentuckians), is actually the tea party incarnate. Come November, we'll see if voters have a taste for it.