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Who is to blame for Republicans losing the last presidential election?

In a race where the GOP nominated an establishment-blessed patrician with a moderate temperament who obscured his views on nearly every major issue, many Republicans settled on a strange culprit: conservative ideology.

After the 2012 loss, panels were convened and reports were issued recommending that Republicans reach out to Hispanic voters, young voters, women voters, find new ideas, soften on social issues, appear less divisive, untether from the past. But the subtext behind each recommendation was that noisy conservatism would have to be jettisoned to broaden the party.

“Republicans have been fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex,” opined David Frum on MSNBC. Joe Scarborough responded with characteristic restraint by comparing Frum’s words to those of Winston Churchill.

It was always a ridiculous diagnosis. Fox News and talk radio are just as loud as ever, and yet Republicans look poised for big gains in the 2014 mid-term elections. But even if the Senate remains in Harry Reid’s quivering hands, the notion that Republicans need to junk their base in order to broaden it is simply not true.

For evidence of that, look no further than presidential candidate and Tea Party hero Rand Paul.

Paul has actively courted Hispanic voters and said Republicans must “get beyond deportation,” a direct shot at Mitt Romney’s plan for Hispanics to “self-deport.” He’s called for more GOP outreach to Hispanics and endorsed visa reform.

He’s touted school choice and prison reform as potential ladders for low-income, minority voters. This earned him unlikely praise from former NAACP chairman Ben Jealous.

“He’s an engaging guy—that’s why we want to talk to him,” said current NAACP head Lorraine Miller, who plans to feature Paul at the group’s national conference this July. Paul also gave a speech at the largely African-American Howard University last year, and while it ultimately blew up in his face, he at least showed up, something that can’t be said for the GOP’s other 2016 candidates.

Fresh ideas? Paul has them, most notably his rejiggering of Jack Kemp’s “enterprise zones” as “economic freedom zones” to bring investment to Detroit. A fresh face? Paul is only 51, a tween on the presidential age scale, and completely unmoored from the messy Republican policymaking of the past decade.

None of this seemed to be registering for the Republican establishment, which continued to regard him as an exotic, if slightly gaudy, political sideshow. Then Paul went to the University of California at Berkeley and gave a speech that brought the college audience to its feet.

Republicans have long sought to crack the code of young voters. Maybe they’re into civil unions? And they wear flip-flops sometimes I think? Paul not only connected with Millennials; he did at one of the most progressive institutions in the country.

After that, it was as though everyone in the GOP establishment slowly stood up and said in unison: “Wait, could he actually win this thing?”

In the month since the Berkeley address, the response from Paul’s Republican detractors has been fierce. Bret Stephens called Paul “nakedly unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of sane Americans” and accused him of “bark-at-the-moon lunacy.” Rich Lowry attacked his foreign policy as “immature, to say the least.”

Jennifer Rubin worked herself into a fearsome dervish of the fourth-grade reading level, mentioning Paul 143 times in the first three weeks of March and more recently concocting the smear that he blamed America for starting World War II. (He didn’t.)

Why do they sputter and foam so? Applied to Paul’s critics, Tom Wolfe’s question about John Irving can be partly answered by foreign policy. Neoconservatives aren’t about to surrender the GOP to an anti-war freshman senator, and the party establishment isn’t keen on pivoting from the Bush years either.

But there’s something else there that ties back to the post-2012 conservative-shaming. The logic was supposed to be: The GOP need to expand, therefore it’s time to dump the Tea Party. Yet it’s Paul, a creature of the Tea Party, who’s out there successfully expanding the GOP.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

None of this is to suggest that Paul is a political savior or even the inevitable nominee. The Kentucky senator has his own baggage when it comes to minority outreach, most notably his infamous comments about the Civil Rights Act on Rachel Maddow’s show in 2010.

Paul also risks losing the conservative base if he starts triangulating his positions; his recent comments downplaying abortion bans and voter ID laws are very concerning. But right now the fascinating political reality is that, in a Republican Party where the activist base and establishment are at war, a politician from the activist wing is doing the establishment’s work for it.

Which means the establishment will continue to sputter and foam. This could be fun.

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