The strength of a political party is not how many seats in the House or Senate, state or federal level, you can capture in districts and states favorable to your point of view.  It’s how many of the other party’s seats you can capture in states and districts favorable to them. Republicans could find a group of trained seals and run them for Congress in districts President Obama is particularly unpopular in and have a good chance of winning them (Yellow Dog Democrats anyone?)

But winning behind enemy lines shows how powerful a political party is. And in this context, perhaps a more important race for Ron Paul supporters and for the future of the Republican Party in general is not the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky –  where Ron’s son Rand is the GOP nominee and is  either comfortably ahead or near dead even with his opponent Jack Conway, according to which poll you consult - it’s a House race in North Carolina where polling shows Paul supporter B.J. Lawson in a dead heat with veteran Congressman David Price in a district more than tailored to favor the Democrats (thanks to the university community in the Durham-Raleigh-Chapel Hill Research Triangle).

Having pretty much exterminated its liberal/moderate wing, (something the Democrats did not do to their moderate/conservative wing), it’s difficult to foresee how Republicans could win in blue districts and states. Yes, Scott Brown won a Senate seat in Massachusetts , but you can probably only fool Tea Party members once and get away with it.

Lawson, however, may well be showing the way Republicans can win in blue districts by running on the Paul/Campaign for Liberty platform. The notion of libertarian populism was born in Ron Paul’s presidential run and it may well be the way the GOP can win in such places by emphasizing fiscal discipline, libertarian social views (live and let live depending upon where you live), and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

It’s unfortunate Rand Paul has not run the same kind of populist campaign after winning the GOP nomination last spring, despite the fact President Obama is as a popular in Kentucky as the University of Tennessee, Republican enthusiasm is way up, he’s the son of a relatively well-known national politician, and he is well positioned as an outsider in an anti-incumbent election year. In fact, Rand has lots of room to run on such issues given the unpopularity of the Democrats and the fact Conway was elected in a bruising, nasty primary.

Rand has said again and again he’s not a libertarian, and yet he has said things on the campaign trail that make him sound like he just walked off the casting lot for the Atlas Shrugged movie. But when he had a chance to consistently espouse these views on the question of the Islamic Center near Ground Zero in New York City, he said it was a mistake to locate it there even though it’s private property and according to a libertarian, the building should go wherever its owner wishes (as is true with the  mosques that are already located close to the former World Trade Center site).  Not only did this statement separate himself from his father when asked the same question, it was also unnecessary to say at all. If Rand’s sentiments about coal mine safety policy in Kentucky is: “If you don’t live here it’s none of your business,” should it not also be applied to mosque-building in New York City?  Thus, there is confusion about what Rand’s views really are, starting with the campaign and filtering down to the voters.

This is Rand’s first run for public office and obviously there is a learning curved involved. Neither you or I would run a perfect statewide campaign our first time out. And it’s admirable that Paul wants to cut his own figure as a candidate rather than be constantly compared to his father. Indeed, many sons and daughters of famous politicians often suffer in comparison to their famous parents and it hurts their careers when they’re unable to establish an independent identity for themselves (See the Skip Humphrey story).

But Rand’s campaign has run into a lot of problems to the point where he himself and his fitness for national office has become the main issue in the campaign rather than cleaning up Washington. That it has come to this is largely because the message of the campaign right now seems to be “Paul later clarified his views to reporters….”. It’s one thing to be one’s own man, but is it too much to ask Rand to campaign for same things he did back in 2007-08 while working for his father?

All of this points to the problems the Republicans will have even if they are successful taking control of Congress. Being the party of No-Obama may well win an election, but it’s no mandate for governing, other than to continue to say “no” all the time, which could very well lead to another disastrous government shutdown.  If Rand loses, the blame not only would fall on himself but could possibly spread to Ron Paul and affect a potential run for president in 2012. Indeed, Rand could easily be dismissed as a “kooky Tea Party candidate who lost” by the GOP establishment eager to give its 2012 presidential nomination to Mitt Romney. And even if Rand eked out a win people will say it was only because it was in a red state. No more meaning nor weight will be given to it other than that.

There’s an opportunity being missed in this campaign, and it’s one that if properly seized could help Rand not only win and win comfortably, but establish himself as a political force in his own right. Rand needs to run against the machine again, just as he did in his successful primary victory over their puppet candidate Trey Grayson. He needs to run against what Kevin Phillips called the “arrogant capital.” It needs to be a populist campaign with a libertarian twist, i.e, speak out against the TARP bailout, against the corporate subsidies big business gets from the federal government, against the drug war Conway wants to bring to Eastern Kentucky with its violence and corruption, and against the administration’s handling of Afghanistan. He needs talk about decentralization and how the Feds have failed coal miners with the failure of federal agencies to regulate mine safety, how the agencies have been captured by the “buddy system” in Washington, and how the states can do a better job.  In this way he can show he’ll be his own man Washington instead of an Obama rubber stamp or a toady of Mitch McConnell’s machine and also provide a model for other campaigns to follow in the future along similar lines, just like Lawson is doing.