WASHINGTON — Bowling Green ophthalmologist Rand Paul's victory in Tuesday's Kentucky Republican primary will force an uneasy alliance between the GOP establishment as represented by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Tea Party movement that helped clinch Paul's win.
The two sides will have to put aside the animus that has punctuated the campaigns to prepare for a Democratic challenge this fall from Attorney General Jack Conway.
Even as late as Tuesday afternoon, McConnell seemed uneasy with the prospect of Paul's win. McConnell stiffened when asked about the race in which Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a candidate who enjoyed favorite-son treatment by the senator and other GOP luminaries, was down by double digits in most polls heading into Election Day.
"There are a bunch of primaries today, and tomorrow we'll talk about the results," McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill. When another reporter pressed, McConnell gave the same answer, then walked away.
Paul, for his part, expressed confusion over McConnell's continued popularity among Tea Party-leaning Republicans.
"I think some things are hard to explain," Paul said during a radio interview.
Later, McConnell congratulated Paul.
"Dr. Paul ran an outstanding campaign, which clearly struck a chord with Kentucky voters, and I congratulate him on his impressive victory. Now Kentucky Republicans will unite in standing against the overreaching policies of the Obama Administration.
"We are spiraling further into unsustainable debt, and Kentucky needs Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate because he will work every day to stop this crippling agenda," McConnell said.
During the party's post-primary "unity" rally Saturday, McConnell and Paul will have to continue to make amends.
"McConnell is the formal leader of the caucus, and this is a relationship Paul has to acknowledge," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "You can be a free spirit to an extent, but you still do have to compromise to get things done."
Though Paul's win speaks volumes about anti-establishment fervor, he will have to work within the constraints of the institutions he purports to oppose, observers said.
"He really doesn't have any place to go. He can't go to the Democrats. If he wants something, he has to join the Republican conference in the Senate," said Donald Gross, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.
"He might not be in as good a position because he's kind of got this reputation as an ultra-conservative and a maverick."
Paul could learn from the example of retiring Sen. Jim Bunning, the man whose seat Paul hopes to fill.
Bunning, while hailed as prescient for his criticism of Fannie Mae, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury in the years leading up to the banking and housing meltdowns, was politically sidelined after a prolonged series of tiffs with McConnell and other Republican leaders.
"Bunning's example is a cautionary tale for Rand Paul," Baker said. "There is no one more widely ignored than Jim Bunning, who was written off as a crank. You can be dismissed as a flake."