In January 2012, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was leading a moderate-sized but mighty revolution through Iowa. Paul was not the likeliest Hawkeye hero: a marionette-looking, libertarian-leaning obstetrician obsessed with Austrian economics who stuck out like Ayn Rand on a welfare line in the land of pink-faced Christians like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.
But Paul managed to locate an untapped vein of enthusiasm in the caucus state and used that to construct a grassroots apparatus that threatened to upset the GOP establishment. He visited colleges, converting young people with his message of small government and non-interventionism abroad—the latter being particularly appealing to voters who had spent the majority of their lives with their country at war in the Middle East during the George W. Bush administration. It looked, for a time, like he might win…. But then he came in third.
Three years later it’s Paul’s son, Rand Paul, the eye doctor-cum-senator from Kentucky, who is vying for the Republican nomination. Paul’s task is this: keep the supporters he inherited from his father happy while converting enough new supporters to win.
It doesn’t look like it’s going so well in Iowa, where Paul will land on April 10 as part of his “National Stand with Rand Tour,” wherein he is expected to formally declare, on April 7 in Kentucky, that he is running for president.
Politico’s Ben Schreckinger reported on March 26 that Drew Ivers, the chairman of the elder Paul's 2012 campaign in Iowa, has already jumped ship because of Paul’s shape-shifting: “He’s moderating most of [his positions], not taking a real clear stance on a number of them,” Ivers told Schreckinger. “The strategy of sending a blended message is one that has risk.”
Additionally, Paul has lost the support of Iowa Ron Paul-ites State Senator Jason Shultz and former Iowa GOP central committee members Chad Steenhoek and Joel Kurtinitis, Schreckinger reported. All three of them view Ted Cruz, who announced his candidacy last week, as the greener pasture.
“He’s being pulled in two different directions,” Craig Robinson, a former chairman of the Iowa GOP, told me of Paul.
“On the one hand, he wants to be more mainstream, but every step he takes to be more mainstream puts him in conflict with his father’s base of supporters.”
Robinson said it seems unlikely such a plan could succeed in Iowa.
“He’s really kind of, in Iowa, running a two-pronged campaign. How do you keep two sets of people happy who don’t see eye to eye?”
In particular, Iowa caucus voters—of whom there are only about 150,000 for the candidates to claw each other to the death over—tend to value social conservatism more than the “libertarian-ish” stuff he’s selling. In a sense Ted Cruz, slimy and demonic as he may be, possesses exactly what Paul needs: the feeling of a party outsider, but with evangelical credibility. Paul’s awkward attempts to reassure both groups that he is one of them will inevitably, it seems, leave at least one feeling cold.
We saw a preview of this awkwardness just last week, when Paul met with a group of evangelical leaders to discuss gay marriage. He told them he believed Washington should play a role in fixing the “moral crisis”—a remarkable shift from his usual libertarian-approved position, which is that the federal government should stay the hell out of it. But Paul’s phrasing was really all about the crowd he was addressing. After the talk, his campaign assured me and other reporters that despite what it sounded like, Paul still believed what he always believed.
“It’s going to be difficult to keep the Ron Paul supporters from 2008 and 2012 happy. Yes, they’re libertarians, but I also think in their nature they’re a little contrarian: Supporting Ron Paul was kind of giving the middle finger to the establishment. Rand Paul wants to be viewed as a sort of respectable person who can win the nomination.” Ron Paul supporters, Robinson admitted, “probably wouldn’t like it if you said [voting for him] was a protest vote, but in some sense it was appealing.”
Paul’s camp, of course, denies that mastering this bizarre game is difficult.
“It’s much ado about nothing!” Steve Grubbs, Paul’s Iowa strategist, told me by phone. “We have called through to many [party] chairs, we have seen polling data, and Rand Paul is doing very well with former Ron Paul voters. It’s a pretty good base, and I can tell you this: The plan for Rand Paul is not to rely solely on Ron Paul voters. He has an appeal to voters that supported his father and voters that didn’t.”
Grubbs and the rest of Paul-World claim to view his ability to be an ideological chameleon as having no downside. “There were a lot of people who were favorable to Ron Paul but were not convinced he could win. Rand Paul brings in a whole new group of voters who understand that he could take this all the way to the White House,” Grubbs said.
Beyond the question of whether or not Paul’s attempt to fool—or convince, if you are so kind—various groups of voters into thinking he represents them will be successful in Iowa, there is the question of whether the ghosts of his dad’s last campaign could come back to haunt them.
In 2012 just before the caucus, State Senator Kent Sorenson, a well-known Michele Bachmann supporter, abruptly jumped ship to join Ron Paul’s movement. His support, it turned out, had been purchased for $73,000 (legal technically, but a violation of Iowa ethics rules).
Emails were later leaked implying that Jesse Benton, the campaign chairman, knew of the payments. In the wake of Sorenson’s guilty plea in 2014, Benton (who denied multiple interview requests for this article) resigned from the campaign of Mitch McConnell. To make matters more complicated: Benton wasn’t just a Paul campaign operative, but, having married Ron Paul’s granddaughter, he was family. And he was expected to eventually join Rand Paul’s presidential campaign.
While it seems Benton will have no role in the upcoming race, many of Rand’s father’s operatives linger, and all has not been forgotten on the ground in Iowa.
“I think it’s very clear that the  campaign operated very fast and loose,” Robinson said. “The fact that Rand has guys who are wrapped up in that would concern me greatly.” All it would take to “derail a campaign” like Paul’s, he went on, would be “one little news story or investigation into one of these guys.”
A source close to both Ron and Rand Paul told me that what happened in Iowa in 2012 should not be of concern to those considering supporting Rand in 2016: “No one who works for Senator Paul has been accused of anything. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say, ‘Well, they probably didn’t do anything wrong, but he should have kept Ron’s people off his team three and a half years later.’”