Can Rand Paul Bring Libertarians Into the GOP?

Mainstream Republicans may not welcome them, but the party could use the lift.

As Rand Paul's filibuster jammed Twitter streams and made C-SPAN must-see TV, the National Republican Senatorial Committee seized the moment. The campaign arm, starved for cash, began a viral fundraising drive to capitalize on the drama, asking for donations so that Senate Republicans can "stand with Rand."

"The Republican caucus has remained committed to upholding the values and the mandates of the Constitution, something that liberal Democrats refuse to do," went the pitch.

Talk about a revolution. Exploiting Paul's marathon star turn, which was born of his distinctly libertarian-leaning ideology, was a new direction for the party. Only three years ago, establishment Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, fought against Paul's insurgent candidacy in Kentucky. Now McConnell, a fellow denizen of the Bluegrass State, was on the Senate floor, side by side with his former nemesis.

But basking in Paul's reflected glory is one thing. The question facing Senate Republicans, and the entire GOP, is how far they want to hang with the libertarian cool kids. True, the new ideas and energy generated by a high-profile iconoclast such as Paul are something the party sorely needs after last year's electoral setback left the GOP Senate looking stale and impotent. But that particular brand of ideology, with its intractable belief that nearly all federal government is unnecessary, also carries deep risk — particularly as the party tries to woo minority voters who are more likely to view government activism favorably or retain seniors fearful that their federal benefits will be cut.

There may be no better test case for how much Republicans are willing to embrace the current libertarian moment than the potential candidacy of Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who is publicly contemplating running for the Senate. Although he reiterated last week that he still hasn't made a decision, if Amash runs, he might very well emerge as the favorite to win the GOP nomination and compete for the seat currently held by retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin.

In some respects, Amash would be the same breath of fresh air as Paul: He's young, 32; new to Washington, elected in 2010; and, by anyone's measure, unbeholden to leadership. But the House member carries the same far-reaching fiscal and antigovernment views that mark Paul's platform.

Just this year, Amash opposed federal relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy and increasing the minimum wage. He also voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and has pushed back against Rep. Paul Ryan's eponymous budget because he said it doesn't go far enough.

To some Michigan Republicans, that ideological disposition is doomed to failure in a state that hasn't backed a GOP presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988. There's "absolutely no way" Amash can win a general election in the Wolverine State, said Mike Hudome, a GOP strategist who managed the campaign of the last Republican senator to win there, Spencer Abraham in 1994. "We're in a state where we keep losing presidential elections, so we're going to nominate a guy who wants to go farther and farther to the right?"

Libertarianism does offer ways for the GOP to broaden its appeal — as nearly every postelection autopsy has deemed necessary — especially among voters turned off by the party's restrictive social views. It doesn't consider thwarting gay marriage an imperative, and, as Paul showed in a speech last week, it is amenable to liberal immigration reforms.

But, as Amash might ultimately demonstrate, libertarianism's fiscal side shrinks the party's tent. The perception that the GOP favors the rich — something Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus acknowledged last week while unveiling his committee's blueprint for revival — had a lot to do with the party's defeat in 2012, as Mitt Romney could attest. Trimming and shelving government programs that help the middle class and the poor risks exacerbating that perception. Moreover, Paul won't wear the yoke well as a standard-bearer, as shown by his zag on immigration reform this week. His views toward American isolationism and marijuana decriminalization don't jibe with those of the bulk of his caucus.

That puts the NRSC and the Senate GOP leadership in an awkward position. They're desperately in need of A-listers, but they have to court them while still trying to broaden their appeal to mainstream voters. They're fortunate that candidates such as Amash remain outliers rather than a trend across the political landscape. But if they enthusiastically back Paul while simultaneously discouraging the Michigan lawmaker's candidacy, they will elicit cries of hypocrisy. NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring declined to comment on candidate recruitment.

Tellingly, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is publicly bullish on Amash's prospects, both in a primary and in the general election. It could be telling the truth, or — as Claire McCaskill did to Todd Akin in Missouri last year — the committee could be goading the person it views as the weakest possible candidate to get into the race. "He would be the favorite in a primary against [Rep. Mike] Rogers or anyone else, and I would expect him to be competitive in the general," said Guy Cecil, the DSCC's executive director. "Midterm elections are about turnout, and Amash could energize the sizable GOP base in Michigan."

Republicans might still be making up their mind about Rand Paul's vision, but Democrats apparently feel no such equivocation: If the GOP embraces Paul and his acolytes, the odds of Democrats holding onto the Senate in 2014 look better.