Here’s one difference between Rand Paul and papa Ron Paul, says mama Carol Paul: her son is funny on stage.
“Ron doesn’t do that—he doesn’t tell jokes,” Mrs. Paul says of her husband of 53 years. She recalls a lively speech Rand made for his dad in New Hampshire on the 2008 presidential campaign trail. “He was so personable—it tickled me to death.”
Jokes aside, there are few obvious differences between Rand Paul, 47, and his dad, 74, who has become an unconventional political celebrity in his golden years. So Rand Paul, now embarking on a promising Republican primary campaign for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, finds himself charged with a complicated mission—convincing voters he is a good old bluegrass conservative Republican while maintaining the goodwill of his libertarian rebel base.
“It’s threading a needle,” says Scott Lasley, a professor of American politics at Western Kentucky University, “between what Rand Paul needs to do to win and where a lot of his base support is coming from. It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.”
But the younger Paul is clear-eyed. Though he entered the race in August—to the chagrin of Kentucky Republicans who had already handpicked Secretary of State Trey Grayson to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Bunning—it isn’t as though he decided to take up politics yesterday.
“I’ve had it in my blood,” Paul tells TAC, recalling how, at age 10, he would listen raptly to his father’s radio interviews. An obstetrician who moved his growing family—Rand is the middle of five—to Texas in the 1960s, Ron Paul was convinced that government spending had led to the growing monetary crisis. He lost his first congressional bid in 1974, but captured the 22nd District seat in 1978 and has served in Congress a total of 21 years.
“In 1984, I gave my first speech for [my father],” Rand recalls. “When I was 21, before 300 people, I debated [then Texas congressman] Phil Gramm.” The elder Paul, who was running against Gramm for an open Senate seat, let young Rand stand in during debates for which Ron had a conflict with House votes. By all accounts, he held his own.
Rand Paul has spent the last 15 years as founder and chairman of Kentucky Taxpayers United, a state legislative watchdog group. It wasn’t his first experience in the anti-tax movement, said Carol Paul, recalling his leadership in a similar organization while attending classes at Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina. “He was vitally interested in [tax issues]” and trying to shake things up, she laughs. “I said, ‘Are you sure you are in school?’”
He was. Like his dad and two siblings, he became a doctor, an eye surgeon. He married Kelley Ashby and settled in Bowling Green in 1993, where they are raising three sons, aged 16, 13, and 10. All helped Grandpa Paul run for president, with Rand traveling with the campaign and speaking in at least 10 states.
“In so many ways, I have been practicing for this for 17 or 18 years,” Paul notes. “My wife had been telling me to wait until I was 55 and the kids were in college.” But fate stepped in when Bunning, who “had seen his political star fade” according to the Washington Post, finally caved to the “unsubtle campaign” by Republican leaders, including senior Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, to retire before he lost the seat outright. But the Kentucky squires overlooked a few factors.
First came the Tea Party movement, which effectively harnessed the anti-Washington outrage coursing through the degraded GOP base. And they hadn’t counted on Rand Paul—whose father was the only Republican to come out of the 2008 devastation a winner and who carries the right measure of camaraderie with these disaffected voters—choosing this moment to stick his toe in the political waters.
Jesse Benton, who handled communications for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, now serves as a senior adviser to Rand Paul. “Here you have someone with the intellectual underpinnings, the proper motivation … and really special times,” Benton offers. “You’ve got the mainstream establishment reeling and having a real credibility gap right now. Then you have Rand with the family name and credentials.” The stars, he says, are truly aligned.
“It’s going to be one of those years where almost anything can happen,” says Terry Madonna, a pollster and political analyst for Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “McConnell and these mainstream Republicans … they are really going to have their political skills tested. … They might hold the party together, but the real test is what the voters do.”
It’s important to understand who these voters are. Rand Paul seems to know, having worked on the periphery of Kentucky politics for nearly two decades. On one hand, he advances a libertarian intellectual framework, nurtured in a household where Hayek, Ayn Rand, and von Mises were familiar names. His service on his dad’s campaign wasn’t just the indulgence of a dutiful son, he brought the energy of an activist. (Post-campaign, the Paul movement has become institutionalized as the Campaign for Liberty, which at one point raised over $6 million in one day from individual donations.) Rand speaks of an “American rabble” that is “bereaved at the loss of liberty,” that “wants an end to the imperial presidency” and empire-building abroad, and that aims to strip the federal budget down to its constitutionally enumerated functions.
But like his father, Rand Paul is a Republican—since 1976, he says—and he knows his chances in the May primary partly depend on how well he convinces county chairs and local Republicans that he identifies with their issues and mores. He has to, for Kentucky has closed primaries. Only registered Republicans can vote on May 18, and party switchers had to re-register by Jan. 1. Registered independents and Democrats who might be inclined to support Paul as the primary approaches are already too late.
“In order to win, I think he needs to get to know the party activists and the people who have been involved in the party politics for a long time because those are the people who are going to vote,” says Nathan Gonzales of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report, an established political handicapper. If not, “I don’t think he is going to bring in enough new Republican voters to win.”
Therein lies the double-bind for Rand Paul, and it may very well highlight the internecine fissures within the GOP—within conservatism itself—like no other election this year. First, Paul has to work the system he and the burgeoning national base of anti-government rabble-rousers behind him have openly eschewed. But then, he must deal with competing ideological factions within his base—the loyal libertarians who brought his dad to national prominence and the Tea Partiers who don’t naturally abide libertarian positions on war and civil liberties. On top of it all, Paul will have to live down criticism for riding his dad’s coattails and for being an “outsider” who has raised most of his campaign funds—more than $1.6 million—from outside Kentucky.
Rand Paul freely admits that without his famous father, he would not be able to launch a credible statewide campaign, having not held a high-profile office like his primary opponent, Trey Grayson, who is in his second term as secretary of state. That said, what he’s tapping into as he travels across Kentucky is real. It’s not all about cleaving to the party machine and being able to check all the boxes, he says. People are responding to the message of reform by sending new blood, even non-politicians, to Washington.
“I get nothing but nodding heads and people coming up to me saying, ‘You’re absolutely right,’” Paul says, noting that after months of speeches and meet-and-greets throughout the state’s 120 counties, he can sense not only a thaw, but a real chance for success. “I’m thinking we have an even-odds chance. When we started, I used to think we were 80-20, now I think we’re 50-50.”
If Rand can win the primary, he faces better odds in the general. While Democrats enjoy a lopsided advantage in party registration in Kentucky, the state chose Republican John McCain over Barack Obama with 58 percent of the vote in 2008.
So Paul has been careful to emphasize that he is a “constitutional conservative” and a Republican, not a party Libertarian—a potential weakness that Grayson is hoping to exploit as the primary season gets hot.
The Kentucky political blogosphere pounced on a recent suggestion by Paul that as the new junior senator from Kentucky, he would not necessarily support Senator McConnell for GOP leader. Paul said in an interview with a local ABC affiliate, “I have to win the primary first. So I don’t think I’d make a judgment on how I’d vote for leader.” Paul blamed the Grayson campaign for the resulting tempest, saying it distracted from all the positive things he said about McConnell in the interview. Nonetheless, since even in these times crossing the minority leader could be dangerous, Paul met privately with McConnell—who everyone thinks is supporting Grayson anyway—shortly after the November kerfuffle. Illustrating his bind, however, one of Rand’s key staffers resigned a month later, saying it was “morally necessary,” because the candidate had forbidden his people from attacking the Republican Party and Senator McConnell.
“Rand now says he can’t win by attacking McConnell,” wrote Christie Gillespie, in a statement given to reporters. “Rand has changed his message of reform, so I cannot be further involved in this effort with a clear conscience. If we are not working to reform the GOP, we are only helping the establishment.” She said she was subsequently quitting the GOP and joining the Libertarian Party.
Grayson, who spoke with TAC, says his opponent’s biggest problem is getting away from the fringe image of the libertarians in his base. One of his supporters, Breahitt County GOP Chair Mike Bryant, started the website www.tookookyforkentucky to attack Paul on this front. Grayson says Rand is being forced to modify or nuance his positions on a number of key issues, from the war in Afghanistan to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, to be more palatable to Kentucky’s traditional conservative electorate.
Paul wants a “national debate” over whether the adversary in Afghanistan poses enough risk for us to justify staying. If so, he says, there should be a formal declaration of war. He ties the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the current debt crises. Grayson is likely to characterize this as a lack of support for the military, a strong presence in the state.
“He is a classic libertarian, and I am a classic conservative. From my standpoint, that will be helpful to me,” Grayson tells TAC.
“I tell him good luck with that one,” retorts Paul, noting that all recent polling has him catching if not passing Grayson. “We’ve spent the last six months defining who we are and letting people know who he is, and we’ve already won that battle.” Paul’s team would rather the narrative reflect another primary drawing national attention: Tea Party darling Marco Rubio battling moderate Republican Charlie Crist for Senate in Florida.
Still, Paul readily admits he gets it from both sides. The Grayson campaign has accused Paul of flip-flopping on Guantanamo, first supporting the administration’s plans to close it, then releasing a statement in November saying, “These thugs should stand before military tribunals and be kept off American soil.” Unlike his father, Paul says he supports trying suspected terrorists in military courts—he does not believe foreign detainees are constitutionally protected—but he would “ultimately close [Gitmo] down.”
That caused a rumble among libertarians who believed that Paul was selling out. They might also have a problem with his views on abortion. He believes it is a states’ rights issue, but told TAC that he would support a federal ban on abortion if it came up in Congress, which would put him in the good graces of the conservative Republican electorate in Kentucky.
And while his recent endorsement from Steve Forbes might pass muster with libertarians, it might raise their eyebrows that Paul admitted to “making overtures” to Sarah Palin for help campaigning in the state. (This probably makes sense since Paul estimates that 75 percent of his current base “didn’t support Ron Paul” in 2008.)
“It’s like we can’t win on either side,” Paul laughs, but he still sees a path to victory. “I think we just stay true to our positions,” he says, citing plans for cleaning up the debt, balancing the budget, and passing term limits. He cites Ronald Reagan’s adage, “the soul of conservatism is libertarianism” and avows that if libertarianism means hewing to the framework set by the Founding Fathers, “I’m all about that.” The Republican Party, in not such distant memory, was all about that, too.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a reporter in the Washington, D.C. area.
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