Rand Paul’s play to expand the GOP’s tent
By: Katie Glueck
December 22, 2013 07:04 AM EST
Rand Paul cracks jokes about smoking pot. He says the GOP needs to bring minorities and “people with ponytails” into the fold. The Kentucky senator doesn’t back gay marriage, but he’s not out beating the drums against it, either. And he’s advocated cutting defense spending.
Not exactly the typical profile of a Republican standard-bearer. But that appears to be precisely Paul’s gambit for a possible presidential bid in 2016: that he can remake the party’s traditional coalition, engaging younger and minority voters without alienating the older, whiter and more conservative demographics that typically decide the Republican nomination.
It’s a narrow tightrope for Paul to walk. Every break with his party on national security and foreign policy — and there have been several — threatens to make it that much harder for him to shed the isolationist tag in the eyes of the Republican establishment. Every entreaty to libertarian-leaning college students who adored his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, could complicate the task of creating some space from an element of the GOP regarded in some quarters as radical, even kooky.
But Paul’s success or failure could have big implications for a party that’s been watching young, urban and minority voters flock to the Democratic Party with no apparent counterstrategy. If he can make a dent in that Democratic coalition by using his libertarianism to woo young voters and others who don’t traditionally fall in the GOP camp, Paul could help his party forge a path back to the White House.
“He has a particular appeal to young people with libertarian views, about keeping government out of our lives … even in a Republican primary he might get a strong share” of that vote, said longtime GOP strategist Charlie Black, who has worked on presidential campaigns for Republicans including Sen. John McCain and President George W. Bush. At the same time, Black added that Paul’s views are “out of step on foreign policy and national security with the mainstream Republican Party.”
Even as the national mood swings away from interventionist approaches, Paul’s emphasis on privacy in national security debates, coupled with his inward-looking approach to foreign policy, gives pause to some party stalwarts.
“Clearly, everybody is tired of wars that seem to drag on and on,” said GOP strategist Whit Ayres. “On the other hand, a strong element of the Republican coalition believes America has both a moral and a self-defense obligation to lead in the world.”
Yet Paul’s more libertarian approach to those issues makes him stand out to young voters, an overwhelmingly Democratic demographic despite a recent poll showing President Barack Obama’s approval rating floundering with that group.
A report released earlier this year from the College Republican National Committee found that a hands-off position on global affairs and skepticism of defense spending — views espoused loudly by Paul — are embraced by young voters across the political spectrum.
“These voters were concerned that the U.S. was spending too much, and when asked what the country should cut first, defense – and to a lesser extent, foreign aid — emerged as the best places to start,” the report read, also noting that for an increasing segment of millennial voters, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are a distant memory.
Paul has distanced himself from the more controversial foreign policy views held by his father, but he also sees an opportunity to woo young voters over the privacy issues that surfaced following revelations this year about National Security Agency surveillance.
When asked during a brief interview how he will seek to engage young people as he takes his next political steps, Paul said, “I think [by] talking about the right to privacy, and we’re going to continue working on that.”
Some data suggest Paul is on target. After revelations about the NSA’s broad surveillance powers broke last summer, support for President Barack Obama with people younger than 30 tumbled 17 points in a CNN poll in June. That issue creates an opening for Republicans to gain ground, according to Paul, who has blasted much of the NSA program as “unconstitutional.”
“Young people, they don’t really associate with Republicans on taxes and regulations. Not that they oppose us, they just don’t have any money so they don’t care much about those issues,” Paul said over the summer on “The Laura Ingraham Show.” “But they’ve all got a cellphone, they’re all on the Internet, they’re all concerned about Internet freedom — and they’re concerned about privacy. And these are precisely issues where we can grow our youth vote.”
Paul communicates comfortably with young voters: At a libertarian-leaning conference last summer, he even joked easily about his own collegiate experiences with drinking beer and smoking pot, as he also stressed the need to broaden the Republican tent.
“We need white people, we need brown people, we need black people,” Paul said. “We need people with ponytails, people with tattoos, people without tattoos.”
He also has made concerted overtures to minority communities: He delivered a speech at the historically black university, Howard University. He also recently ventured to deeply Democratic Detroit, where he helped open a state GOP office.
“[First], you have to show up,” Paul and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in POLITICO Magazine. “In Detroit, that’s what we’re doing — and we’re just getting started.”
But despite his entreaties to these groups, his profile on hot-button issues — from abortion to gun rights — is still very conservative. Paul also espouses a deeply conservative economic vision, which did not play well with young voters and minorities when promoted by other Republicans in 2012.
“At the end of the day, he’s not liberal, he’s not progressive, and so it’ll be interesting to see,” said Trey Grayson, the director of the Harvard Institute of Politics who ran unsuccessfully against Paul in the 2010 primary. “The other risk is, if he brings over folks on the left on national security issues, does he also then hurt [himself] on the right?”
Another open question for Paul is if it’s realistic that a sizable number of young voters — even those who agree with him on NSA surveillance — would pull the lever for a Republican, said Peter Levine, an expert on the youth vote at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
“I think a bunch of young people who are very liberal are angry about the NSA,” he said. “But are they going to switch to a registered Republican candidate, or are they just going to stay out of politics?”
A.J. Spiker, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party — a former Ron Paul aide who speaks glowingly of the younger Paul — said President Barack Obama parlayed the youth vote to his advantage in Iowa, and said he could see the senator doing the same. The trick is motivating college students and other young voters to turn out at the polls.
“That’s always the big question. They did [turn out] for Barack Obama both in the caucuses in Iowa and in the presidential campaign,” he said. “The Republican Party does have a message that, if the right messenger delivers it, [it] is appealing to young people.”
But Spiker also said Paul could be an appealing “messenger” at both substantive and stylistic levels.
“I think he represents, really, a new generation of Republicans,” he said. “He’s not afraid to wear jeans with a sports coat, go without a tie. … He’s very comfortable with himself. That, too, is appealing to youth, I think.”
By some counts, Paul’s father earned 48 percent of the youth vote in the Iowa caucuses and 47 percent of that demographic in New Hampshire in 2012 during his last presidential bid. Rand Paul would most likely enter a race with that base at a minimum.
“Sen. Paul will benefit from his father’s supporters like we’ve seen before in the past,” said GOP strategist Chip Saltsman, who managed Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Sometimes you get half the supporters and all the enemies — but even with just half the supporters, it gives him a great base launching pad.”
And he is more likely to win over a broader coalition than his father was, observers say.
“Sen. Paul clearly has greater potential to grow his coalition than his father did,” strategist Ayres said. “But libertarians are still very much a minority within the Republican coalition. So he’s going to have to reach out beyond libertarians in order to become a serious candidate.”