Analysis

Can Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee reinvent themselves — and their party?

These Tea Party senators might get their second chance

Donald Trump has certainly made the task of retaining control of the Senate more difficult for Republicans. It also does not help that 2010 was an unusual wave year for Republican candidates in the Senate, bringing a surge of more marginal or ideologically adventurous "Tea Party" candidates into the upper chamber. Republicans may think that Trump's probable loss will return the party to its normal state. The truth is that "normal" before Trump was still unsettled and divided.

The class of Republican senators elected in 2010 and after — national figures like Rand Paul (Kentucky), Mike Lee (Utah), and Marco Rubio (Florida) — were bidding to take the party in different and contrary directions. Their feuds will return, perhaps moderated by the cruel experience of discovering that none of their visions for the future much inspired voters when contrasted to Trump. Let's take their examples in turn:

Rand Paul has the luxury of running in deep red Kentucky. He has stayed unusually quiet about the national scene since he bowed out of the presidential race himself. He gave Trump an unenthusiastic endorsement in early May, tying it to the infamous pledge.

More broadly, Paul has had a rocky time navigating the transition of libertarian ideas from the fringe of electoral politics to the center. His willingness to challenge Republican orthodoxy, or blend it with the libertarian views of his father, won him lots of admirers in the press and beyond. But when public opinion or partisan energies weigh on him, he has a hard time following through. He could not bring himself to endorse the president's nuclear deal with Iran, which was an attempt to avoid direct military confrontation. Although he loudly blamed hawks in his own party for creating the conditions in which the Islamic State could flourish in the Sunni Triangle, he could not resist popular calls to re-enter Iraq in order to take vengeance on ISIS.

Paul had great difficulty finding the right way to bridge the gaps between the party that exists now, and the party he imagines could exist in the future. His ability to occasionally dazzle libertarian think tankers was matched by his ability to baffle them with old-timer populist stunts like taking a chainsaw to the tax code.

Mike Lee is also one of the more entrepreneurial figures of the Tea Party class of senators. His aides have also quietly reached out to conservative thinkers and policy minds who have written about the economic problems facing working-class whites. Perhaps with the way Utah and the Mormon right has emerged as the designated driver of the Republican coalition, his profile will naturally rise after 2016.

But the question is whether Lee's reformist instincts will develop into something greater. So far he offers enticing policy solutions, but seems to only be able to generate interest in them among his colleagues if they come loaded with major tax breaks for those in upper-income brackets. For those watching for whether the GOP is capable of ever realizing that its true voting base is made up of wage-earners, look to see if Mike Lee shifts there.

Marco Rubio may be the Republican that pays the largest price for Donald Trump's campaign disasters, if he is caught by his Democratic opponent by election day. The truth is, even if he wins, Marco Rubio has to begin all over again to build up his image after 2016.

And what is he? In his young career he was an enthusiastic supporter of Mike Huckabee. He attached himself to the "Tea Party" in order to defeat his moderate incumbent opponent in 2010. He has also styled himself as a fierce hawk, during a period when the American public is war-weary. But after Romney's loss in 2012, he allowed himself to become the face of the Republicans' last blunder at comprehensive immigration reform. His involvement in the Gang of Eight bill was a major albatross in his run for the presidency. The hopes placed on him were that he had the rhetorical skills and biography to begin winning at least a less-embarrassing percentage of votes from minorities to the Republican Party.

The Republican Party has known since at least 2008 that it needs some kind of reform to become effective again at the national level and in presidential elections. It's in the Senate that these new ideas can be road-tested. The first attempt by the Tea Party class of 2010 seems like a mixture of promising ideas that almost all immediately crashed and burned, going up in flames when put into contact with public opinion, internal Republican politics, or the challenge of Donald Trump.

These Tea Party senators are about to get their second chance. Their ambition to leave a mark on their party and on history needs to grow, not shrink, underneath a Clinton presidency.

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