What Was Rand Paul Thinking?

His support of a risky North Carolina long shot has GOP donors and 2016 oddsmakers questioning the libertarian star’s endorsement strategy.

Alex Roarty
May 7, 2014, 5:19 a.m.

If Greg Bran­non had won his primary this week, it’s fair to pre­dict that Re­pub­lic­ans would not only have lost the state’s battle­ground Sen­ate con­test but suffered na­tion­wide em­bar­rass­ment. The North Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an has already called Pres­id­ent Obama a fas­cist and com­pared abor­tion to the Holo­caust, and earli­er this year, a jury de­cided that he needed to re­pay a pair of in­vestors hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars for mis­lead­ing them in a failed start-up com­pany. (He has ap­pealed the ver­dict.) An­oth­er six months on the cam­paign trail, un­der the harsh scru­tiny of a mar­quee race, and there’s no telling what oth­er con­tro­ver­sies would erupt.

And, yet, this Todd-Akin-in-wait­ing had se­cured the en­dorse­ment of one of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s most in­flu­en­tial and am­bi­tious lead­ers — Rand Paul. The sen­at­or from Ken­tucky and un­abashed pres­id­en­tial hope­ful en­dorsed Bran­non early in the GOP primary and then swooped in on his be­half a day be­fore Re­pub­lic­ans took to the polls to choose their nom­in­ee, call­ing him a “dragon slay­er” dur­ing a rally in Char­lotte.

Luck­ily for the GOP, Bran­non washed out in Tues­day’s elec­tion, fin­ish­ing a dis­tant second to newly min­ted nom­in­ee Thom Tillis. But while the loss erases Bran­non’s can­did­acy, it doesn’t erase ques­tions over what, ex­actly, Paul was think­ing.

Even the sen­at­or from Ken­tucky seemed to re­cog­nize his mis­take Tues­day night, when, minutes after Tillis’s vic­tory, he took to Face­book to urge Re­pub­lic­ans to “unite” be­hind the es­tab­lish­ment-friendly nom­in­ee. He, more than most, has good reas­on to move quickly on dam­age con­trol: The sen­at­or is a ser­i­ous pres­id­en­tial hope­ful, but he must still prove he has the polit­ic­al savvy to sidestep the con­tro­ver­sies and pit­falls await­ing any White House con­tender. For Paul, that’s an es­pe­cially per­tin­ent ques­tion be­cause of the per­cep­tion — fair or not — that his his­tory in fringe liber­tari­an polit­ics makes him prone to sup­port causes and can­did­ates too far out of the main­stream.

He’s done well to dis­pel those con­cerns in the very early go­ings of the 2016 cam­paign, court­ing well-heeled donors with a vis­ion for a big-tent party. But this week’s move non­ethe­less had Re­pub­lic­an in­siders rais­ing fresh doubts about his polit­ic­al radar.

“A lot of folks were scratch­ing their heads over his de­cision, par­tic­u­larly be­cause on a range of polit­ic­al is­sues, Rand had shown him­self to be more stra­tegic and prag­mat­ic in his long-term polit­ic­al think­ing than, say, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee,” said one Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ive, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “For­tu­nately, there was ul­ti­mately no harm, but for any­one court­ing the Re­pub­lic­an big-donor com­munity, you can’t have too many mis­steps like that.”

What puzzled many in North Car­o­lina GOP circles wasn’t the en­dorse­ment it­self, which Paul made very early in the cam­paign in Oc­to­ber, but the one-day ap­pear­ance on his be­half earli­er this week. In their view, Paul was wast­ing his time to help a can­did­ate who had failed to catch on and stood nearly no chance of mak­ing even a primary run­off.

If any­thing, however, Paul was lucky he didn’t muster much sup­port for Bran­non. If he had won, Re­pub­lic­ans na­tion­wide would have blamed Paul for boost­ing an un­elect­able can­did­ate. After suc­cess­ive Sen­ate cycles of blow­ing win­nable races by tap­ping people who could not win, Re­pub­lic­ans, and es­pe­cially Re­pub­lic­an donors, are still sens­it­ive about pick­ing dis­astrous nom­in­ees.

Asked why he was cam­paign­ing with a can­did­ate who had been found to mis­lead in­vestors, sources close to Paul noted that Bran­non had ap­pealed the rul­ing and be­lieved he was in­no­cent. Paul takes the en­dorse­ment pro­cess very ser­i­ously, they said, meet­ing with can­did­ates and learn­ing about their po­s­i­tions. If he’s go­ing to back someone, he’s go­ing to do more than just lend his name to their ef­fort.

“Sen­at­or Paul be­lieves Dr. Greg Bran­non is the best can­did­ate in this race be­cause he is out­sider, a doc­tor who un­der­stands his pa­tients and not a ca­reer politi­cian,” said Ser­gio Gor, spokes­man for Rand PAC, in a state­ment giv­en to Na­tion­al Journ­al be­fore Tues­day’s res­ults.

En­dorse­ments are an es­sen­tial part of any pres­id­en­tial cam­paign to build sup­port and al­li­ances for their up­com­ing runs, and it’s a pro­cess most cam­paigns per­form with ex­treme cau­tion. Oth­er po­ten­tial Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates are a use­ful guide: Marco Ru­bio’s Re­claim Amer­ica PAC has en­dorsed Reps. Tom Cot­ton in Arkan­sas and Cory Gard­ner in Col­or­ado, two men with un­dis­puted claims on the GOP nom­in­a­tion. A third en­dorse­ment, Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, faces a com­pet­it­ive primary but has the im­pli­cit back­ing of the state’s gov­ernor, Terry Bran­stad, and most of the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment.

Paul, mean­while, was the only 2016 hope­ful be­hind Bran­non (con­ser­vat­ive groups like the Club for Growth nev­er backed him, while Tillis had sup­port from lu­minar­ies such as Mitt Rom­ney and Jeb Bush). It’s part of an odd over­all strategy, in which Rand has backed his home-state sen­at­or, Mitch Mc­Con­nell, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — neither a fa­vor­ite of the act­iv­ist crowd — but thus far op­ted against en­dors­ing con­ser­vat­ive fa­vor­ites in com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate primar­ies in states such as Ok­lahoma and Neb­raska.

The con­sequences aren’t all bad for Paul: His en­dorse­ment will earn him the re­spect of some act­iv­ists in North Car­o­lina and na­tion­ally, and stick­ing his neck out for a can­did­ate with tea-party cre­den­tials will help the sen­at­or re­tain the loy­alty of his fer­vent base. Not everything works out in polit­ics. “Sen­at­or Paul has prob­ably made some friends down there in the pro­cess, be­cause Bran­non does have some fol­low­ers,” said Charlie Black, a con­sigliere to a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns. “You have to take some risk when you run for pres­id­ent.”

If Paul is smart, however, it’ll be the last risk he takes for a while.

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