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It’s time to stop calling Rand Paul a tea partier

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (Melina Mara/Washington Post)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is the most interesting man (or woman) in the Republican Party today. He is known as a staunch conservative on fiscal issues, but he's working with Democrats on criminal sentencing reform. He woos religious conservatives in Iowa, but he also flirts with a more libertarian stance on social issues. And as unrest continues in Ferguson, Paul said something no other Republicans are saying: That the "militarization" of police is harmful to African Americans.

We think Benjy Sarlin said it best:

Rand Paul is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. And four years after he burst on to the scene in the 2010 Kentucky Senate race, we're still trying to figure out precisely who he is.

What he's not, though, is a tea partier. That's far too simple a label.

As we've written before, the "tea party" tag has been vastly over-applied throughout the last few years. It was basically used on every Republican who won office in 2010, even as many of them had little to do with the movement -- either ideologically or in their actions. (Case in point: Chris Christie was once seen as a tea partier. Think about that.) Since then, it has been used to refer to basically any Republican who beat the GOP establishment in a primary.

Given Paul's political rise -- he defeated an establishment-aligned Republican in a 2010 primary -- it was natural to label him a tea partier. We have done it too -- repeatedly. It's the easiest short-hand for a GOP outsider. But more and more, it's looking like that label doesn't really fit. While Paul is certainly aligned with the tea party on a lot of stuff, the label doesn't describe him as well as it does someone like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). An op-ed Paul wrote Thursday in Time magazine was just the latest example of that. The things Paul said in it are not the kind of things you would expect from a tea partier.

And indeed, it seems actual tea partiers are apparently noticing that Paul isn't exactly their cup of tea. The new McClatchy-Marist College poll of the 2016 GOP presidential primary shows Paul's share of the tea party vote dropping from 20 percent in April to 7 percent today -- tied for fifth. Cruz, meanwhile, leads this demographic with 15 percent.

Similarly, an NBC News/Marist College poll of the Iowa GOP caucuses last month showed Paul leading Cruz and tied for first overall. But while Cruz's support was almost completely among tea partiers, Paul actually did no better among that segment than he did overall. He was tied with Rick Santorum among tea party supporters.

Both of these polls have small sample sizes and shouldn't be taken as gospel, but it's notable that Paul doesn't appear as reliant on tea party support as the other big supposed tea party candidate, Cruz. That's by design. Paul is reaching out to the minority groups and religious conservatives for a reason; he knows he's not the tea party-est of the tea partiers and that he can't/won't rely on their votes to deliver the GOP nomination in 2016.

With Paul, it's not so much that the tea party won't like him -- he will definitely get support from many tea partiers if and when he runs, and especially if Cruz doesn't -- as it is that it over-simplifies a pretty complex politician.

The trouble with Paul is that no well-known labels seem to fit him well. While his dad, Ron Paul, is a pretty straight-line libertarian, that's not really who the younger Paul is. He's not an establishment Republican, a neo-conservative, an arch-conservative or a moderate Republican.

We still don't know what label would be better than "tea party," but it's becoming clearer and clearer that this label doesn't really fit. Maybe he's just a Rand Paul Republican.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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