Rand Paul has become the Cinderella story of this political season. Until recently a complete political unknown, the Republican nominee for Jim Bunning's U. S. Senate seat has charmed the electorate of his party, and earned himself an invitation to the political ball in November, where he will try his charms on a broader electoral public.
Of all the politicians running in major races this election season, Paul has been the most vocal in identifying himself with the Tea Party movement. Not only did he seize early on the anti-government sentiment brewing as a result of President Obama's socialist agenda, he explicitly took on the Tea Party label. And, as if to complete to symbolism, he even received the endorsement of the fairy godmother of conservative politics: Sarah Palin.
In fact, one of the Tea Party's long-term problems is that it doesn't have a single, recognizable leader. It may have just found one.
Paul has the intellectual ability to articulate the Tea Party case in a way Palin can't. Palin's strength is not in her political acumen, but in what she stands for. She is a symbol. If she and her advisers are smart, they'll recognize this. Her biggest asset is her ability to personify the Tea Party's populist agenda, an ability that is both larger and smaller than what is needed to win national political office.
The fairy-tale nature of Paul's rise to national prominence in so short a time has been further enhanced by his status as giant-killer. Aligned against him in his bid for the Republican Party nomination for Senate was Mitch McConnell, who is not only the state's senior Republican officeholder, but his party's leader in the Senate.
McConnell had backed Grayson early, long before anyone even knew about Paul. In the end, Grayson and McConnell were left standing and watching, political stepsisters in Paul's rise to prominence.
To McConnell's credit, he stuck with Grayson to the end. Political expedience would have dictated he defect to Paul when it became apparent late in the race that Grayson was losing. Others did this. But it is a political maxim in politics that you gotta dance with you brung you, and a moral corollary of that principle is that you out to dance with who you brung. McConnell did this, and it was the right thing to do.
While Paul's campaign seemed enchanted, Grayson's seemed cursed. Paul was out early with a slick website, complete with extensive position statements. Grayson's site was primitive in comparison, and, well into the campaign, trying to find where he stood on the issues was like trying to find your way through the forest--with no crumbs to help.
Grayson's own tendency to spout political platitudes also didn't help--particularly in the face of the far more articulate Paul. When the Louisville Courier-Journal posted interviews with the two candidates, conservative political blogger Marcus Carey captured the comparison perfectly: "I have one word summary of my comment on each. Paul: senatorial. Grayson: student council."
McConnell shook down endorsements from prominent establishment Republicans. Former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed Grayson. So did New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. But as hard as McConnell pleaded, Political Fortune refused to let down her hair.
The only mistake the Paul campaign made--and it was not inconsiderable--was to alienate the state's most important right to life group late in the campaign. Paul staffers apparently botched filling out the Kentucky Right to Life questionnaire, leaving one question unanswered when it faxed its form, resulting in Grayson receiving the group's endorsement--an important endorsement in the Republican primary. The Paul campaign, stung by the poisoned apple in its political basket, blamed the mistake on Right to Life, angering the group.
The Paul campaign should work speedily to mend fences.
Does the story have a happy ending? Paul's opponent in the fall is Jack Conway, the Democratic candidate who polled best against Paul. No one knows, except maybe the magic mirror on the wall.