The country's anti-establishment mood is well documented. Primary voters in both parties are starting to look like torch-bearing background players in a movie with a title like It Came From Washington. They are unusually resistant this year to having candidates foisted upon them who bear the insidious mark of the establishment. Just ask involuntarily retiring incumbents like Sen. Bob Bennett, Republican of Utah, and party switchers like Sen. Arlen Specter, ersatz Democrat from Pennsylvania, and Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith in Alabama. And the voters are equally unhappy with political neophytes promoted from Washington, like Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
In some cases, the establishment is as feckless and flatly incorrect as advertised. Democrats made a Faustian bargain with Specter, trading a few months of a theoretically filibuster-proof majority for their top-to-bottom backing in his primary. Rep. Joe Sestak beat Specter anyway, giving the party a stronger candidate in spite of itself. The Democrats weren't so lucky in Hawaii last weekend when their inability to settle on one candidate cost them the House seat that President Obama carried with 72 percent in 2008. (No surprise: It's the district of his birth.)
But the fact is that the establishment is often correct. For example, Republicans are favored to pick up four Senate seats currently held by Democrats: Obama's old seat (which the forgettable Roland Burris holds), Vice President Joe Biden's old seat (which placeholder Sen. Ted Kaufman occupies), and the seats being vacated by retiring Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. The querulous conservative wing of the GOP, most notably the Tea Partyers, opposed to varying extent the establishment candidates expected to win those seats. Moderate Delaware GOP Rep. Mike Castle, for instance, was famously booed at a town hall meeting last summer when he dared suggest that Obama is, in fact, a U.S. citizen. And while conservatives grouse that Rep. Mark Kirk in Illinois and former Sen. Dan Coats in Indiana are ideologically squishy, the movement split its votes and couldn't stop either nomination.
The cutting difference between the establishment and the ideologically driven insurgencies in both parties, but most especially in the GOP, is pragmatism. The establishment focuses on electability, the insurgents on purity. Conservative icon Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has said that he'd prefer 30 real conservatives over a moderate majority. I'll happily take that deal, but the likes of Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell understand the bigger picture: The majority sets the agenda. A Senate Democratic majority fractious enough to include liberals like Sherrod Brown of Ohio and centrists like Ben Nelson of Nebraska was united enough to pass healthcare reform.
But the tension between pragmatism and purity could stall the GOP drive for huge congressional gains this year.
Case in point is Rand Paul, the suddenly and unhappily famous GOP nominee in Kentucky, and a certified Tea Partyer. When post-election interviews highlighted his evident discomfort with the 1964 Civil Rights Act (he has issues with the federal government making it illegal for businesses to discriminate based on race), he quickly demonstrated why the establishment GOP had feared him. Even if Paul doesn't have to answer another question about the Civil Rights Act, he can expect a steady stream of queries aimed at illuminating the gap between libertarian orthodoxy and the mainstream of American political thought on issues like child labor laws, worker safety, the minimum wage, regulation of offshore oil drilling platforms, and—kind of a big deal in Kentucky—federal agricultural subsidies. (He's not a fan.) Paul can answer forthrightly and risk alienating voters outside of the Tea Party, or he can bob and weave as he has on civil rights and look not only like just another politician but, worse, like an inept one. Either way, a Senate race in which the GOP should have a distinct advantage figures to remain competitive.
There are other potential Rand Pauls in battleground races around the country: grassroots favorites aiming to sweep aside more conventional, establishment picks. They share the kind of astringent ideology that can excite Tea Partyers while turning off swing voters.
The top contender to be the next Paul may be former Nevada state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who is in a three-way dogfight for that state's June 8 primary. Casino owner and former state party chair Sue Lowden seemed to be cruising to the nomination before she started opining about returning to a healthcare barter system. Her approving recollections of people paying their doctors with live poultry (surely giving new meaning to the phrase "wing-nut") prompted Democrats to call her health plan "Chickens for Checkups."
As Lowden stumbled, the Tea Party Express endorsed Angle, who surged out of polling obscurity. Democrats thrill at the idea of squaring her off against flagging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Her platform is a fringe greatest hits. The departments of Energy and Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency are all unconstitutional, she argues, and she wants to pull the United States out of the United Nations and abolish campaign contribution limits. Oh yeah, and she wants to privatize Social Security. No wonder a Reid aide told Politico: "She's a female Rand Paul."
Or take Colorado, where incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet (who himself faces a primary challenge), polls in the low 40s. National Republicans quietly boosted former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. But grassroots conservatives favor Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, who nabbed 76 percent of the votes at the state party's convention, securing him the top spot on the primary ballot on August 10. (Norton had skipped the convention, opting to get onto the ballot by collecting voter signatures.)
There seem to be few substantive differences between Buck and Norton, but Norton's establishment imprimatur, combined with Buck's more truculent profile, has the rabid base riled up. Buck gained notoriety in Colorado in 2008 when he (illegally, the state Supreme Court later ruled) seized thousands of returns from a local tax preparer on a fishing expedition for illegal immigrants. Image and tone matter, especially where swing voters are concerned, a fact reflected in poll numbers showing Bennet slightly ahead of Buck, but slightly behind Norton.
Republicans may get luckier in California against Sen. Barbara Boxer and in Washington against Sen. Patty Murray, where the right's favorites are still marked underdogs, against more moderate—more electable—establishment favorites.
The notion that Rand Paul may be a harbinger rather than an outlier has some GOP-ers worried. The fact that he and his friends could actually win should bother everyone else.