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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4934) }}

What We're Following See More »
HE ‘WILL NEVER BE PRESIDENT’
Warren Goes After Trump Yet Again
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

When it comes to name-calling among America's upper echelon of politicians, there may be perhaps no greater spat than the one currently going on between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. While receiving an award Tuesday night, she continued a months-long feud with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Calling him a "small, insecure moneygrubber" who probably doesn't know three things about Dodd-Frank, she said he "will NEVER be president of the United States," according to her prepared remarks."We don't know what Trump pays in taxes because he is the first presidential nominee in 40 years to refuse to disclose his tax returns. Maybe he’s just a lousy businessman who doesn’t want you to find out that he’s worth a lot less money than he claims." It follows a long-line of Warren attacks over Twitter, Facebook and in interviews that Trump is a sexist, racist, narcissistic loser. In reply, Trump has called Warren either "goofy" or "the Indian"—referring to her controversial assertion of her Native American heritage. 

FIRST CHANGE IN FOUR DECADES
Congress Passes Chemical Regulations Overhaul
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The House on Tuesday voted 403-12 "to pass an overhaul to the nation’s chemical safety standards for the first time in four decades. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act aims to answer years of complaints that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the necessary authority to oversee and control the thousands of chemicals being produced and sold in the United States. It also significantly clamps down on states’ authorities, in an effort to stop a nationwide patchwork of chemical laws that industry says is difficult to deal with."

Source:
NO MORE INDEPENDENT VOTERS?
GOP Could Double Number of Early Primaries
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Leaders of the Republican Party have begun internal deliberations over making fundamental changes to the way its presidential nominees are chosen, a recognition that the chaotic process that played out this year is seriously flawed and helped exacerbate tensions within the party." Among the possible changes: forbidding independent voters to cast ballots in Republican primaries, and "doubling the number of early states to eight."

Source:
LEVERAGE
Kasich Tells His Delegates to Remain Pledged to Him
6 hours ago
THE LATEST

Citing the unpredictable nature of this primary season and the possible leverage they could bring at the convention, John Kasich is hanging onto his 161 delegates. "Kasich sent personal letters Monday to Republican officials in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where he won delegates, requesting that they stay bound to him in accordance with party rules."

Source:
EFFECTIVE NEXT MONTH
House GOP Changes Rules for Spending Measures
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Speaker Paul Ryan is changing the rules of how the House will consider spending measures to try to prevent Democrats from offering surprise amendments that have recently put the GOP on defense. ... Ryan announced at a House GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning that members will now have to submit their amendments ahead of time so that they are pre-printed in the Congressional Record, according to leadership aides." The change will take effect after the Memorial Day recess.

Source:
×