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.