Rand Paul Is the GOP’s Early Presidential Front-Runner

While the establishment hopes for a governor to emerge, he is quietly putting together a formidable operation.

National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 25, 2014, 4:39 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­an strategists like to say the party’s next nom­in­ee needs to hail from the GOP’s gubernat­ori­al ranks. It’s a re­sponse to how un­pop­u­lar Wash­ing­ton is — par­tic­u­larly the party’s con­gres­sion­al wing — and a re­flec­tion of the party’s strength in hold­ing a ma­jor­ity of gov­ernor­ships. But an­oth­er reas­on for the gubernat­ori­al fo­cus is to sidestep the one for­mid­able can­did­ate that gives the es­tab­lish­ment heart­burn: Sen. Rand Paul.

Make no mis­take: The Ken­tucki­an scares the liv­ing day­lights out of many Re­pub­lic­ans look­ing for an elect­able nom­in­ee cap­able of chal­len­ging Hil­lary Clin­ton. At the same time, he’s work­ing over­time to broaden the party’s im­age out­side its tra­di­tion­al av­en­ues of sup­port. The 2016 Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­at­ing fight will go a long way to­ward de­term­in­ing wheth­er Paul is the mod­ern ver­sion of Barry Gold­wa­ter or at the lead­ing edge of a new, more liber­tari­an brand of Re­pub­lic­an­ism.

“That’s the big chal­lenge — is Amer­ica ready? I think that Rand and his small-L liber­tari­an Re­pub­lic­an­ism can break through,” said Paul’s long­time ad­viser Jesse Benton. “He’s a fun­da­ment­ally bet­ter mes­sen­ger than Barry Gold­wa­ter — [Gold­wa­ter’s 1964 cam­paign slo­gan] ‘In your heart you know he’s right’ is not very com­pel­ling. Rand is a won­der­ful com­mu­nic­at­or, and I think a mes­sage of in­di­vidu­al liberty can build wide sup­port.”

Either way, Paul’s brand of polit­ics is a dis­tinct de­par­ture from the party’s tra­di­tion­al moor­ings. His oc­ca­sion­al sym­pathy for Ed­ward Snowden puts him on an is­land with­in the party. His cri­tique of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance tech­niques and non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist views on for­eign policy are gain­ing some con­ser­vat­ive fol­low­ers, but are still out­side the party main­stream. Many con­ser­vat­ive for­eign policy hawks could soon­er sup­port Clin­ton than Paul in a 2016 match­up.

And he’s got a his­tory of ques­tion­able as­so­ci­ations and con­tro­ver­sial com­ments that would make Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion re­search­ers sal­iv­ate. Wheth­er it’s hir­ing a top aide who was a former se­ces­sion­ist talk-show host (and de­fend­ing him amid con­tro­versy), ques­tion­ing the leg­al­ity of the 1964 Civil Rights Act dur­ing his Sen­ate cam­paign, or fa­cing al­leg­a­tions of pla­gi­ar­ism from past speeches, Paul’s got plenty of con­tro­ver­sies poised to ree­m­erge in a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Paul’s in­voc­a­tion of Bill Clin­ton’s af­fair with Mon­ica Lew­in­sky to at­tack Hil­lary Clin­ton in re­cent weeks is clas­sic Paul — throw red meat in­to the fire to en­er­gize the base, re­gard­less of the polit­ic­al con­sequences.

At the same time, Paul has been do­ing more than al­most any oth­er Re­pub­lic­an to ex­pand the party’s ap­peal to non­tra­di­tion­al GOP voters — the type of activ­ity that’s im­per­at­ive for fu­ture suc­cess. He spoke at Howard Uni­versity and his­tor­ic­ally black Sim­mons Col­lege in Ken­tucky (twice) as part of an out­reach ef­fort to­ward Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. His Jack Kemp-like pitch for “eco­nom­ic free­dom zones” has even drawn the in­terest of the NAACP, which in­vited him to speak. He’s been lead­ing the call for re­form­ing drug sen­ten­cing, an is­sue that’s won sup­port from many young voters and minor­it­ies who dis­pro­por­tion­ately bear the bur­den of cur­rent zero-tol­er­ance policy. This week, at a Mis­souri Re­pub­lic­an Party ban­quet, he said the party needs “a more di­verse party — with tat­toos and without tat­toos.”

Mean­while, the polit­ics of the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion look in­creas­ingly fa­vor­able to Paul. He is one of the top fun­draisers in the field, has a ready-made base of sup­port from his fath­er’s pres­id­en­tial net­works, and has proven his savvy polit­ic­al in­stincts with a made-for-TV drone fili­buster and NSA law­suit. The newly com­pressed Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial cal­en­dar should be­ne­fit a Paul can­did­acy, since he’s got the grass­roots sup­port to play in the small states and the money to fight for­ward in the big me­dia-mar­ket states that fol­low.

Paul’s mu­tu­ally be­ne­fi­cial al­li­ance with Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, who faces reelec­tion this year, is a prime ex­ample of his polit­ic­al foresight. Mc­Con­nell has helped him build chits with the es­tab­lish­ment, in­clud­ing donors skep­tic­al of his na­tion­al vi­ab­il­ity. Mc­Con­nell, mean­while, has got­ten tea-party val­id­a­tion to get him through a con­tested primary against busi­ness­man Matt Bev­in. He’s also be­nefited from Paul’s swipes at former Pres­id­ent Clin­ton, who is emer­ging as an im­port­ant sur­rog­ate for Mc­Con­nell’s Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger, Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes. Mc­Con­nell, if he sur­vives the gen­er­al elec­tion, could be­come the next ma­jor­ity lead­er. But Paul, in tam­ing the es­tab­lish­ment skep­ti­cism to­ward him, could end up with the big­ger prize.

“He is the Re­pub­lic­an front-run­ner,” said Re­pub­lic­an strategist Scott Jen­nings, who served as deputy polit­ic­al dir­ect­or in the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and is now run­ning a pro-Mc­Con­nell su­per PAC in Ken­tucky. “The polit­ic­al in­stinct of when to do things is not something you teach — you either have it or you don’t. He’s got a knack for find­ing pop­u­list is­sues show­ing why the gov­ern­ment is stu­pid, and people like it.”