WASHINGTON — If political newcomer Rand Paul, a darling of the Tea Party movement, sails to victory in Kentucky's May 18 GOP primary, the win could prove a harbinger of November's mid-term elections.
Political analysts and national media outlets continue to focus on the battle between Paul and the Republican establishment's favorite — Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson — as an experiment in grass-roots insurgency powered by disgruntled conservatives who bemoan what they see as an unprecedented expansion of federal government.
In many ways, the Kentucky contest will help measure the Tea Party movement's true clout.
"I think they're ready for a lot of people to come home — that includes incumbents," said Paul, the son of 2008 presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. "There's a Tea Party tidal wave coming, and when it comes it's going to sweep a lot of people out."
But a lot of that depends on whether Paul, 47, an eye surgeon from Bowling Green, can avoid some potential land mines that have drawn attention nationally.
Last month, health care bill protesters affiliated with the Tea Party movement gathered outside the U.S. Capitol shouted racial epithets at Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, and spat on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who is also African-American. The protesters also used a slur as they confronted Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is openly gay.
During protests last summer, demonstrators displayed a poster depicting President Barack Obama as an African witch doctor in a headdress, above the words "OBAMACARE coming to a clinic near you."
Paul, who has been a fixture at Tea Party events since the movement's infancy, says he does not condone such actions. He points out that the group's rallies are a "sort of open mike night" where the actions of a few have led to "a lot of misconception nationally about the Tea Party movement."
His Web site coyly asks whether he's a "Tea Party poster child?" and his stump speeches utilize Tea Party buzzwords like "Obamacare." But he stops short of acknowledging outright membership.
Grayson spokesman Nate Hodson said Paul's assertion that he is a maverick grass-roots champion is disingenuous because he has capitalized on his family's political machine quickly by raising hundreds of thousands from his dad's list of out-of-state donors.
"The environment is anti-Washington, and Rand Paul's ties to Washington are much closer than he's letting on to Kentuckians," Hodson said. "Rand Paul is a member of a long-time Washington family, and he's running as the heir apparent to the family business."
The amorphous nature of the Tea Party movement makes it easier for a hopeful to sail under its banner. Anyone who opposes the expansion of government and is against the Obama administration's platform is invited, said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
Congressional hopefuls like Paul are dancing a delicate waltz as they bask in the movement's energy and anti-establishment themes but sidestep from being too closely aligned with the group when the rhetoric turns rancorous.
"Politicians are very opportunistic. Unless they are being endorsed by some disreputable organization, they will generally accept support," Baker said.
"You accept whatever dividends you get and you keep your fingers crossed that your supporters don't go crazy."
Candidates backed by the Tea Party movement are making similar gambits in races from California to Florida. Arizona's Senate race pits former TV personality-turned-congressman-turned-conservative radio talk host J.D. Hayworth against the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. In the Florida race for the U.S. Senate, backing from the Tea Party movement is helping former state House speaker Marco Rubio mount a competitive challenge to Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican Party favorite son and rising star.
In the Kentucky race, Paul was endorsed by Tea Party star and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed Grayson, calling him "the real conservative in this race," and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has long lent Grayson his blessing and his support.
Paul leveraged his Tea Party support and his father's donor network to pull in $2 million, more than the $1.7 million Grayson got with the help of GOP heavy hitters. Paul is also ahead in several polls, including a SurveyUSA poll from early March that showed Paul garnering support from 42 percent of likely Republican voters, compared to Grayson's 27 percent.
"It's me being in the right place, with the right ideas, at the right time. This wouldn't have happened six years ago," Paul said. "It dawned on me at last year's April 15 rally in Bowling Green. I walked up to the square thinking there would only be about 20 or 30 people, and there were several hundred people there. I thought, 'Huh, we might be on to something.'"
According to a recent Quinnipiac University national poll, 74 percent of those affiliated with the Tea Party movement are registered Republicans or independents who lean Republican.
Republican strategists worry that contentious primary battles, like the one in Kentucky, could exhaust campaign coffers and, in races where candidates backed by the Tea Party-backed candidates emerge victorious, could make the party vulnerable to big losses in the fall's general election. Democrats are seizing on this and are doubling efforts to take a strong and critical position against the Tea Party movement.
"For a Republican to win they have to not only get regular Republicans and the Tea Party Republicans. They have to make sure they keep all the people who may be offended by these tactics for the general elections," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Rand and other candidates can accomplish this by trying to find "mainstream positions supported by the Tea Party," Sabato said.
Mary Jo Leake, 63, a nurse and grandmother of 13 who co-chairs the Bowling Green Tea Party chapter with her husband, Wesley, said Paul is up to the task of pulling together support should he win the primary. But she also doesn't appreciate "the kooks out there who are making us look bad."
"We're not radicals and Nazis," she said. "We're people who used to sit and yell at the TV and we've gotten up off the couch. We're people who believe in the Constitution and our Founding Fathers' vision of the nation. That seems to be what (Paul) believes in. Men like Rand, we believe, have the ability to change our country to what it should be."