Rand Paul Is the GOP's Early Presidential Front-Runner

While the establishment hopes for a governor to emerge, he is quietly putting together a formidable operation.

National Journal

Republican strategists like to say the party's next nominee needs to hail from the GOP's gubernatorial ranks. It's a response to how unpopular Washington is — particularly the party's congressional wing — and a reflection of the party's strength in holding a majority of governorships. But another reason for the gubernatorial focus is to sidestep the one formidable candidate that gives the establishment heartburn: Sen. Rand Paul.

Make no mistake: The Kentuckian scares the living daylights out of many Republicans looking for an electable nominee capable of challenging Hillary Clinton. At the same time, he's working overtime to broaden the party's image outside its traditional avenues of support. The 2016 Republican nominating fight will go a long way toward determining whether Paul is the modern version of Barry Goldwater or at the leading edge of a new, more libertarian brand of Republicanism.

"That's the big challenge — is America ready? I think that Rand and his small-L libertarian Republicanism can break through," said Paul's longtime adviser Jesse Benton. "He's a fundamentally better messenger than Barry Goldwater — [Goldwater's 1964 campaign slogan] 'In your heart you know he's right' is not very compelling. Rand is a wonderful communicator, and I think a message of individual liberty can build wide support."

Either way, Paul's brand of politics is a distinct departure from the party's traditional moorings. His occasional sympathy for Edward Snowden puts him on an island within the party. His critique of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance techniques and noninterventionist views on foreign policy are gaining some conservative followers, but are still outside the party mainstream. Many conservative foreign policy hawks could sooner support Clinton than Paul in a 2016 matchup.

And he's got a history of questionable associations and controversial comments that would make Democratic opposition researchers salivate. Whether it's hiring a top aide who was a former secessionist talk-show host (and defending him amid controversy), questioning the legality of the 1964 Civil Rights Act during his Senate campaign, or facing allegations of plagiarism from past speeches, Paul's got plenty of controversies poised to reemerge in a presidential campaign. Paul's invocation of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky to attack Hillary Clinton in recent weeks is classic Paul — throw red meat into the fire to energize the base, regardless of the political consequences.

At the same time, Paul has been doing more than almost any other Republican to expand the party's appeal to nontraditional GOP voters — the type of activity that's imperative for future success. He spoke at Howard University and historically black Simmons College in Kentucky (twice) as part of an outreach effort toward African-Americans. His Jack Kemp-like pitch for "economic freedom zones" has even drawn the interest of the NAACP, which invited him to speak. He's been leading the call for reforming drug sentencing, an issue that's won support from many young voters and minorities who disproportionately bear the burden of current zero-tolerance policy. This week, at a Missouri Republican Party banquet, he said the party needs "a more diverse party — with tattoos and without tattoos."

Meanwhile, the politics of the 2016 Republican nomination look increasingly favorable to Paul. He is one of the top fundraisers in the field, has a ready-made base of support from his father's presidential networks, and has proven his savvy political instincts with a made-for-TV drone filibuster and NSA lawsuit. The newly compressed Republican presidential calendar should benefit a Paul candidacy, since he's got the grassroots support to play in the small states and the money to fight forward in the big media-market states that follow.

Paul's mutually beneficial alliance with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces reelection this year, is a prime example of his political foresight. McConnell has helped him build chits with the establishment, including donors skeptical of his national viability. McConnell, meanwhile, has gotten tea-party validation to get him through a contested primary against businessman Matt Bevin. He's also benefited from Paul's swipes at former President Clinton, who is emerging as an important surrogate for McConnell's Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell, if he survives the general election, could become the next majority leader. But Paul, in taming the establishment skepticism toward him, could end up with the bigger prize.

"He is the Republican front-runner," said Republican strategist Scott Jennings, who served as deputy political director in the George W. Bush administration and is now running a pro-McConnell super PAC in Kentucky. "The political instinct of when to do things is not something you teach — you either have it or you don't. He's got a knack for finding populist issues showing why the government is stupid, and people like it."

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