Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses the crowd at U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's midterm election night rally in Louisville. (REUTERS/John Sommers II)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wasn't on the ballot Tuesday, but he still emerged as one of the night's biggest winners.

It didn't matter that congressional Republicans had sent the government into a shutdown or pushed the nation toward a default. It didn't matter that GOP governors opposed an expansion of Medicaid to help cover poor people in their states. It didn't matter that Republicans ignored the wishes of one of America's fastest-growing demographic groups, Hispanics.

Voters swiftly forgot, or forgave, the GOP, electing Republicans to the House, to the Senate and to governorships. Though the national map favored Republicans, the election went better for them than almost anybody had predicted, or than the normal tides of midterm elections would have suggested.

It's an important lesson for Democrats, who sometimes act as if they cannot fathom why Republicans can do so well at the polls even as most Americans agree with Democratic views on the issues.

G O P are hardly scarlet letters in America.

And yet, in many cases, Americans registered strong support for left-leaning ballot initiatives.

Voters in Oregon, California, the District and Alaska approved more lenient marijuana laws, while a majority of voters in Florida also backed loosening marijuana regulation (though the measure failed to achieved the 60 percent necessary to pass). Antiabortion initiatives in Colorado and North Dakota failed, though one succeeded in Tennessee.

If there's a Republican who can thread the needle between the country's growing social libertarianism and the GOP, it might be Paul, whom Time magazine called "the most interesting man in politics."

Paul has been shifting positions to attract broader support, and some of his (former) views may come back to haunt him. But as this election showed, voters' memories are short.

As speculation about a likely presidential bid heats up in coming months, Paul could play a starring role in Congress -- addressing issues on which there is mutual agreement with Democrats and coming off as far less of a firebrand.

While Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is thinking about causing trouble, Paul could be pushing a deal favored by the White House to expand trade with Asia, or pushing to overhaul mandatory minimum sentencing regulations that have hurt African Americans.

Exit polls released Tuesday showed that Americans still have quite a bit of philosophical skepticism about government. Just a fifth of voters said they trust the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time.

If this is a libertarian moment -- well, a mostly libertarian moment -- it could be Paul's.