GOP leaders reconsider Rand Paul
By: James Hohmann
May 9, 2014 05:48 PM EDT
MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Not that long ago, most Republican leaders saw Rand Paul as the head of an important faction who, like his father, ultimately had no shot at becoming the party’s presidential nominee.
Now the question is no longer whether Paul can win the nomination, but whether he can win a general election.
The shift follows a year in which the Kentucky senator has barnstormed the country, trying to expand the party’s base beyond older, white voters and attract a following beyond than the libertarian devotees of his father, Ron Paul. Although the job is far from complete, Paul has made undeniable progress, judging from interviews with more than 30 Republican National Committee members meeting here this week.
That he has struck a chord with this crowd is all the more telling because it is heavy with GOP establishment-types who tend to prefer mainstream candidates.
“I don’t see how anyone could say it’s not possible he’d win the nomination,” Texas GOP chairman Steve Munisteri said. “His mission is to convince people of what his coalition would be in November” 2016.
During a speech Friday to the RNC gathering, Paul received a standing ovation after saying that the GOP didn’t need to dilute its message but that it had to communicate it better to non-traditional audiences — and suggesting implicitly that he’s the guy to do it.
“To paraphrase Captain Kirk, we need to go boldly to where Republicans haven’t been going,” he said. “We need to go from Harlem to Berkeley, to East Los Angeles and Laredo.”
Paul has not officially declared he’s running for president, he has plenty of critics and also has suffered a series of stumbles that could haunt him down the line. But the pervasive mood here at the RNC spring meeting was that there’s no frontrunner for the nomination, which means there’s an opening for the 51-year-old Paul.
The senator clearly understands this, and he has kept up as aggressive a travel schedule as any other likely candidate, and not just to early voting states.
Missouri Chairman Ed Martin said Paul quickly sold out the party’s Lincoln Day dinner in Springfield. Martin was amazed at how it was not just 500 libertarian true-believers who filled a ballroom, but people from every wing of the party.
“He’s a mainstream candidate,” Martin said. “A big question for 2016 is who can draw new people in. Rand has an attraction … My wife’s not a political person, but she likes Rand a lot.”
Paul, who was elected to the Senate on the tea party wave of 2010, has spent much of his time since schmoozing with the GOP establishment. Last weekend, he invited media mogul Rupert Murdoch (who owns Fox News and The Wall Street Journal) to the Kentucky Derby with him – then allowed a New York Times reporter to chronicle it.
The weekend before, he went to the Maine Republican state convention to call for party unity.
“We had some folks that are categorized as ‘establishment’ or whatever, who told me that if Rand Paul could speak at every convention, I think everyone would see him as a mainstream guy,” Maine national committeeman Alex Willette said.
The day before that Maine speech, Paul was in Boston to speak at the Harvard Institute of Politics. He squeezed in a lunch with several members of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s brain trust.
At the same time Paul has made efforts to reach out to a variety of groups with which the GOP has struggled to find traction, including young people and racial minorities.
On Friday morning, for instance, he met for an hour with a group of African-American pastors. Afterward, Paul held a press conference to outline his push to get rid of mandatory minimum prison sentences, while advocating for school choice and the creation of economic opportunity zones.
“I want to compete for the African-American vote,” Paul said. “I’m about winning elections.”
Republican leader say the 2016 primary season calendar could favor Paul, especially the first four states.
Iowa holds caucuses that are likely to be friendlier to Paul than a primary. And in New Hampshire, Paul could benefit from the strong following there for his father.
In 2012, South Carolina handed a surprise win to Newt Gingrich over Romney. The state’s committeeman, Glenn McCall, said that was evidence Paul could win there if the cards fell right and “he comes and works.” And then there’s Nevada, where libertarian forces have controlled the state party since 2012 and would hold Paul-friendly caucuses.
Among the names being tossed about as potential contenders for the GOP nomination — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, among others — Paul is now considered in the top tier.
RNC committeeman Louis Pope, who chaired Romney’s campaign in Maryland, said Paul is likely to be in the final three, in large part because he would corner the libertarian bloc while building on it. “He’s broader than ‘the libertarian candidate.’” Pope said. ”I do see him going further in the process.”
But Paul has plenty of detractors, even among those who acknowledge he could win the nomination.
There’s a widespread expectation that major donors from the hawkish, pro-Israel wing of the party would pour millions into Stop Rand efforts. Part of this is due to comments Paul has made about cutting foreign aid and being less interventionist overseas.
One prominent GOP state chairman said he could envision Paul winning Iowa, but that the establishment would not let him win New Hampshire. Then, whoever won the Granite State would be the leading alternative to Paul going into South Carolina, and could end up stopping him, the chairman suggested.
Paul is certain to face more scrutiny than his father ever did.
There was hallway chatter here about Paul delivering plagiarized speeches (he blamed staff for ripping off Wikipedia), which critics say shows he’s not ready for prime time.
And there are worries about the sympathy he expressed for rancher Cliven Bundy’s battle with the Bureau of Land Management. Paul condemned the Nevadan’s racist remarks soon after they were reported, but other top-tier candidates never took the bait in the first place.
Ada Fisher, the North Carolina committeewoman, cited Paul’s expression of skepticism about the Civil Rights Act after he won the Senate nomination in 2010 — a stance he subsequently walked back.
“I thought, ‘Boy, this is really off the wall,’” recalled Fisher, who is black. “I hope he is not going to be the nominee for the party. We need a nominee who thinks bigger and bolder.”
Paul has been trying to show he’s more of a team player than his father, who never fully endorsed Romney, including after some moves questioned by the establishment.
For instance, he campaigned on Monday in North Carolina for tea party favorite Greg Brannon against establishment-backed Thom Tillis in the GOP Senate primary. Republican national leaders feared Paul’s last-minute trip could keep Tillis under the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
But once Tillis cleared the threshold, Paul quickly released a statement urging Republicans to unite behind the nominee. This is not the kind of thing Ron Paul would have done.
During the RNC meeting, some of his dad’s hardcore supporters tried unsuccessfully to block moves to cut the number of primary debates in 2016. But Paul said Friday that he’s okay with the reduced schedule.
Indeed, one of Paul’s challenges is to keep the people who powered Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns from being turned off by his outreach to the establishment.
“There are Ron Paul purists who think he’s a sellout,” said Charles Curley, a Wyoming county chairman who was at the meeting as a proxy.
During his lunch speech here, Paul tackled a range of subjects, including his push to rein in the surveillance activity of the National Security Agency — a privacy issue he hopes will gain him youth support. A few tables with die-hard Paul supporters applauded constantly, while the rest of the ballroom was more subdued.
But the loudest applause by far came when Paul attacked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, for several minutes over her handling of the 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
This was clearly an issue that every GOP faction could get excited about.
Colorado party chairman Ryan Call said Paul’s success in catering to his base while reaching out to everyone else bodes well for his chances in 2016.
“Rand has been able, at least so far, to bridge that gap between the most strident absolutists on the libertarian side and a thoughtful, pragmatic approach to actively governing,” he said.