Surprise. The Tea Party has a new leader, and it is Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
With the Tea Party brand currently at new lows – only 22 percent support in a January Associated Press poll – and former Tea Party leaders such as Sarah Palin, Dick Armey and Jim DeMint fading from the scene, Sen. Paul is now the face of the anti-establishment wing of the GOP.
Another Tea Party favorite, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, is getting attention as a fierce political in-fighter. And one other Tea Party senator, Florida’s Marco Rubio, is being hailed as a “savior” for the GOP as he moves to the center and negotiates an immigration reform deal.
But it is Sen. Paul who won the right to give the Tea Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. He not only took on Obama, but also distanced himself from Sen. Rubio, who gave the GOP’s official response.
Sen. Paul is also deftly positioning himself as the Tea Party’s insurgent, the “outsider candidate” running for the 2016 GOP nomination. By distancing himself from Sen. Rubio he raises the possibility of challenging him from the right.
Sen. Paul is rising as a national voice for the Tea Party as the right wing of the GOP feels threatened on two fronts. First, Obama’s commanding victory has pushed his loudest Tea Party critics to the political sidelines. And second, GOP top fundraiser Karl Rove -- recently portrayed in a Nazi uniform by a Tea Party group -- is open about his efforts to counter Tea Party power in primaries. Rove wants more centrist Republican candidates with more appeal on the general election ballot.
While Sen. Paul’s response to the SOTU got little attention from the mainstream press, it was an unrepentant jolt of new life for the Tea Party.
“We cannot and will not allow any president to act as if he were a king” Sen. Paul said in his speech, displaying disgust with President Obama that sounded like 2010, when the Tea Party rose to power during town hall meetings as the opposition to the president’s health care plan. “We will not let any president use executive orders to impinge on the Second Amendment. We will not tolerate secret lists of American citizens who can be killed without trial.”
And Paul spoke up for Tea Party faithful by calling for the GOP to avoid reinventing itself to appeal to independent voters, immigrants and minorities that carried President Obama to a second term and gave Democrats on Capitol Hill an increase in both the House and Senate.
“America …will begin to thrive again,” the 50-year-old, first-term senator said, “when we begin to believe in ourselves again, when we regain our respect for our founding documents, when we balance our budget, when we understand that capitalism and free markets and free individuals are what creates our nation’s prosperity.”
The Kentucky senator’s big bet is that his libertarian views will contrast with the Southern Evangelical Conservative views that have come to define the GOP in recent years. Paul is less interested in social conservatism than in a hard line on small government and less spending.
Last week in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Paul elaborated on the strategic political thinking that leads him to believe his libertarian views can revive the entire Republican brand.
“We [Republicans] are doing fine in congressional seats, but we're becoming less and less of a national party because we don't win on the West Coast, we don't win in New England. We really struggle around the Great Lakes,” Paul told Fox’s Chris Wallace.
When Sen. Paul was asked if he is serious about running for president in 2016, he made it clear he is running to win and not simply to make a quixotic show of running.
“I would absolutely not run unless it were to win,” Paul said. “You know, points have been made and we'll continue to make points, but I think the country really is ready for the narrative coming, libertarian Republican narrative, also because we have been losing as a national party,” Paul said.
The Heritage Foundation, now headed by Paul’s friend and former Senate colleague, Jim DeMint, recently welcomed him for a foreign policy speech that was well received by conservatives. Next month he has a speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington; his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul won the CPAC presidential straw poll in both 2010 and 2011.
Paul also has another powerful ally in the establishment that could help him in 2016 – the senior Senator from Kentucky, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
One of McConnell’s first moves to prepare for his own 2014 re-election campaign was to hire a former aide to Ron and Rand Paul as his campaign manager. A recent poll found Sen. McConnell leading Ashley Judd, the actress, by only 9 points. He needs Sen. Paul’s help with turning out conservative voters.
Rand Paul is not without his weaknesses. During the 2010 campaign, for instance, he raised eyebrows by suggesting that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional because it forced private businesses to serve all races. Paul objects to this on libertarian grounds. He argues the government should not be able to tell private business to do anything.
Conservative columnist George Will criticized candidate Paul for that kind of talk back in 2010. Will said Paul’s job was “to win a Senate seat, not conduct a seminar on libertarian political philosophy.”
But for now, replacing social conservatism with libertarian thinking is key to Sen. Paul’s effort to revive the Tea Party.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.