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Rand Paul wins, and libertarians rejoice

Two years ago, Rand Paul was a harried campaign surrogate, trying desperately to get Republicans interested in supporting -- and big media interested in covering -- the quixotic presidential campaign of his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).

Tonight, Rand Paul is the Republican Party's nominee for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, after clobbering former front-runner Trey Grayson. Paul is set to carry even Boone County, where Grayson lives. When the Associated Press called the race, Paul was winning by 22 points with about a third of precincts in.

How did this happen? Yes, Paul rode a wave of voter anger and tea party enthusiasm and won over Republican voters who wanted to register their disgust at the political establishment in both parties. But a lot of candidates have tried to do that this year. Paul got in early, and organized early.

I remember attending the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in April of 2009 and seeing, to my surprise, Paul volunteers working the crowd, getting signatures for him to make the ballot. And I remember seeing Paul, in early interviews and debates, distance himself from the hard-line libertarian positions, like drug legalization and the war on terror, that soured Republican voters on his father.

Paul's victory came after a year of smoothing over the difference between libertarians and conservatives. His first TV ad stated opposition to the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He sought, and won, the endorsement of conservatives who are anathema to some libertarians -- Dr. James Dobson, Sarah Palin.

"His focus was on spending and business issues," said Erick Erickson, the editor of RedState, who once banned Ron Paul backers from his website but endorsed his son in this race. "He rarely delved into his civil libertarian views outside of the role of government. And there was no compelling alternative to distract conservatives."

In the process, however, he crossed a chasm with hard-core conservative voters that had been shrinking under President Obama. They were ready to be convinced that a defender of the 10th Amendment and states' rights was not a stealth opponent of abortion but a proud opponent of the Obama agenda. And they were notably unimpressed by the endorsements of Bush-era Republicans, like Dick Cheney, Rick Santorum and Rudy Giuliani, for Trey Grayson.

I'm reminded of George Will's quip about Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential victory being a delayed win for Barry Goldwater. Ron Paul won the GOP nomination in 2008 -- it just took two years to count the votes.

By David Weigel  |  May 18, 2010; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Election  
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Next: A tea party victory over the GOP in Louisville

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