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GOP's Tea Party invite might still be in the mail

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, May 21, 2010

"I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words," Rand Paul thundered at his victory party Tuesday night. "We've come to take our government back."

Democrats had reason to smile. Republicans might have shuddered.

Paul, an ophthalmologist and political novice, crushed establishment candidate Trey Grayson in winning the GOP nomination for Kentucky's contested U.S. Senate seat. Paul's victory was one of two significant results from Tuesday's overhyped contests. Both cast serious doubt on the conventional wisdom in Washington, which holds that the Republicans are ascendant and the Democrats are toast.

The other race that meant something was in the western Pennsylvania district long represented by the late Jack Murtha, who was a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat. Republican strategists used the campaign as a laboratory to test the themes and techniques they intend to roll out in the fall -- "nationalize" the election, run against health-care reform, invoke the names Obama and Pelosi to frighten voters out of their wits.

The result? Democrat Mark Critz won handily over Republican Tim Burns -- in a district that voted for John McCain in 2008. "We have a lot of work to do," acknowledged House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.

The other contests Tuesday really didn't mean that much, except to the politicians involved. Rep. Joe Sestak's decisive victory over Sen. Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary was the marquee event in terms of media coverage. But that was mainly because Specter is such a familiar and prominent presence in Washington, having occupied his Senate seat for 30 long years. There was just one problem: For all but one of those years, he was a Republican.

Voters didn't buy the switcheroo, which seemed more the product of calculation than principle -- a cynical maneuver to maximize Specter's chances of holding on to his job. In a state where party identification still means something, Democrats voted for the card-carrying Democrat.

In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln's travails are only slightly more telling. She failed to win a majority in the Democratic primary and has to face a runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. It's true that Halter attacked Lincoln from the left, and it's also true that voters may have wanted to punish her for the way she stalled and equivocated on health-care reform. But the final verdict on Lincoln won't be in for several weeks, so it's too early to draw conclusions.

Far more interesting is the Paul victory. Unlike his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Rand Paul is not a cult figure for libertarians and Tea Party activists -- not yet. Like his father, he is a Republican who has little regard for the party line and believes in a philosophy that might best be described as radical individual freedom -- privatize as many functions as possible and reduce government to its barest bones. If he wins the general election, Paul would probably vote sometimes with the Republicans, sometimes with the Democrats and sometimes with the Whigs.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, perhaps the most powerful Republican in Washington and certainly the party's kingpin in Kentucky, put his considerable clout behind Grayson. But Paul's candidacy became a cause celebre for the national Tea Party movement, and he whipped Grayson in Tuesday's primary by 24 points.

The stunning result should telegraph two warnings to Republicans. The first is a reminder that while voters' ardor toward the Democratic Party might have cooled, this has not led to a passionate embrace of the GOP. There's a splash-back effect from unceasing attacks against the evil empire known as Washington: Voters notice that Republicans live there, too.

The second warning is that the Tea Party movement does not intend to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. Strategists who hoped to use the movement's energy and passion as weapons against the Democrats in the fall should realize that many Tea Party types see the GOP as fundamentally no different.

What does any of this mean for November? The Democrats should still expect to lose seats in both houses. But this week, the GOP lost a special House election that it should have won -- if conditions for the party are really as favorable as the leadership says, that is. And the Tea Party movement, after thwarting the Democrats' best-laid plans in Massachusetts, did the same for Republicans in Kentucky.

The GOP shouldn't measure the drapes in the Capitol just yet.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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