POLITICS
05/20/2010 05:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Rand Paul The Real Deal Or Just A One-Hit Wonder?

"Washington is horribly broken."

"The debt bomb is ticking."

Those were the words spoken by newly-christened Kentucky Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul during his victory speech in Bowling Green on Tuesday night, after pounding his opponent Trey Grayson by a convincing 24 points.

You'll notice the eye surgeon didn't say Kentucky was broken; only Washington was broken.

If Paul, the son of Representative Ron Paul of Texas and the first real Tea Party disciple, hopes to defeat Jack Conway, the state's attorney general and Democratic nominee in November, the "Washington is broken" mantra needs to be a reoccurring theme right up until Election Day.

If "all politics is local,'' as Tip O'Neill liked to say, it's not in Paul's playbook, it's very much national.

So begins a new chapter in American politics with Mr. Paul carrying the torch for the Tea Party movement in shooting down Washington and its reckless spending habits, slamming President Obama for bailing out Wall Street, failing to arrest high unemployment, while promoting ideas for slashing federal programs, voicing opposition to farm subsidies and offering constitutional amendments to balance the federal budget and impose term limits.

It's a deep bucketful of ideas that Paul hopes to splash on Conway in the weeks and months ahead in order to exploit the anti-Washington, anti-establishment, anti-incumbency movement sweeping the country. In reality, Republicans, especially mainstream incumbent Republicans, will be just as vulnerable in November, but since Democrats hold the majority of seats, they stand to lose the most.

So confident are Paul supporters about their chances of winning in November that they ignore the hard reality of the political landscape in Kentucky, which shows Democrat voters outnumbering Republicans by 570,000.

But with the country mired in a down economy with high unemployment and a ballooning federal deficit, party loyalty can't be counted on by the Democrats.

What makes circumstances all the more challenging for Democrats during this election cycle, is the belief that many of the Republican voters who stayed away during the 2008 presidential election, have been reborn in venting their malice toward the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress over a variety of hot-button issues from the expansion of the federal government to the growth of social programs.

A Gallup poll published Tuesday shows that conservatives are proportionately more enthusiastic about voting in the upcoming midterm elections than are liberals or moderates, just one indication of the growing influence that Tea Party supporters hold with congressional elections fast approaching.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that if Democrats hope to prevent a tsunami-like calamity at the polls in November, they'll need to pivot away from what's happening within the halls of Congress and at the White House and focus more on local issues.

Which will be a tall order for any party during these perilous economic times; at a time when everyone seems to blame Washington for anything that troubles them; from how their taxes will rise under the administration's health care program to the slow pace of the economic recovery. How does a Democrat, these days, avoid discussing national issues?

While Paul's win Tuesday may benefit the Tea Party in legitimizing it as a growing conservative social movement for the time being, the danger for moderates within the Republican party, of course, is that they will be forced to lean even more to the right, which runs the risk of alienating a wide swath of potential voters who have grown disillusioned with the Obama administration.

In addition to Kentucky, the Tea Party movement has influenced elections in other states as well. Republican Senator Bob Bennett in Utah was denied seeking his fourth term after losing favor with delegates for supporting health care and voting to approve the administration's Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP).

Prior to Bennett's downfall; the Tea Party movement was largely credited with helping Scott Brown defeat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts to become the first Senate Republican elected in the Bay State since 1972.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist, meanwhile, in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat, bolted from the party to run as an independent after recognizing he had little chance of toppling the more conservative Republican Marco Rubio, who had the backing of Tea Party supporters.

According to Jenifer Lewis, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Western Kentucky University, Paul's victory should serve as a wake-up call to the rest to the more established Republican base that the Tea Party movement is a force to be reckoned with.

"They [Republicans] should realize'' Lewis said, "that the Tea Party movement has 'teeth', and can take a bite out of the GOP."

So the question in this closely watched Senate race in the Bluegrass State will be whether Paul is merely a one-hit wonder, who rocked the boat just enough to win the primary, but failed to articulate a clearly defined plan, convincingly enough to win the general election and advance the cause of the Tea Party movement.

How well (or poorly) Paul scores in public opinion polls over the next few months, will speak volumes about which way the Republican Party is moving and how powerful the Tea Party movement really has become in shaping the political landscape for the upcoming midterm elections and beyond.