March 21, 2013— -- Tea Partiers still love Rand Paul.
His new immigration proposal--which includes backing a pathway to citizenship--doesn't seem to have changed their opinion of him.
Instead, Tea Party faithful say it is an example of his forthrightness as well as their own openness to reform.
Sal Russo, founder of the Tea Party Express, called Paul a "favorite of the group," and despite the movement's focus on the national debt, spending and economic issues he praised Paul's "willingness to stand up and take a principled stand" on immigration.
Paul is still basking in the glow of his 13 hour filibuster against the appointment of CIA Director John Brennan, which made him a Tea Party hero.
Russo compared the Kentucky senator to Ronald Reagan.
"A lot of people voted for Reagan that didn't agree with him on everything, but he spoke boldly," Russo said. "That's what we are sort of applauding with Rand Paul…It's refreshing to have someone raise an issue in a clear and unambiguous way. We think it needs to happen on the fiscal issues."
The Tea Party has largely opposed legalizing undocumented aliens or granting them citizenship, but Russo applauds Paul's immigration proposal.
"I think the immigration issue is an important issue and Republicans have looked like they have their head in the sand and are not being serious about addressing a problem," Russo said.
"People are in this country a long time and they are not legal. We have to get them legal in some way in a process that gets people legal that are here…We should do it because it's the right thing. We need to reform immigration because we need a system that works," Russo said.
Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of Tea Party ally FreedomWorks, said he does not think Paul's immigration announcement hurt his potential 2016 presidential aspirations.
"I think he's sort of risen to the top of the GOP ladder simply by putting ideas back on the table," Kibbe said, referring to both the filibuster and his budget plan. "All of these ideas that most Republicans pay lip service to, he's putting specifics on the table. It's a calculated risk taking that puts him ahead of his other potential primary opponents for 2016."
Kibbe said immigration is not an issue FreedomWorks champions and said proposing citizenship for undocumented aliens is a "calculated risk," and would be "risky water for anyone," but said Paul's proposal is in the "framework of our principals."
"We believe in the rule of law," Kibbe said. "Treat everyone just like everybody else, but we believe if you want to come to this country and work the government has a responsibility to make the process as efficient as possible."
He agreed, however, with Paul's position against a national ID card.
"It's a basic civil liberties issue you really don't want that government to have that kind of power and control over American citizens," Kibbe said.
The Tea Party Still Loves Rand Paul
Like Russo, Kibbe gave Paul some leeway because of his recent filibuster.
"Can you imagine any other presidential candidate talking for 12 hours without a script?" Kibbe asked. "Would Mitt Romney do that? I don't think so."
Jenny Beth Martin, the head of the Tea Party Patriots, also noted that immigration is outside of their wheelhouse, but said they were "aligned" with Paul on the issue of border security, which is the first step in his own proposal he laid out Tuesday.
"The way we've approached immigration is the borders need to be secure," Martin said. "Real action needs to be taken to secure the border and then once that happens we will talk about other immigration policies."
Martin added that Paul has "championed our values and principals, for constitutionally limited government and for that he has gained the Tea Party's respect."
Paul will have an advantage over his potential primary opponents if he has the Tea Party's backing in 2016. On Tuesday, just hours after his immigration address, the Iowa GOP announced he would be headlining their Lincoln Day Dinner in May, another sign he's at least considering testing the waters.