Just a few months into his campaign for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate in 2009, Kentucky’s Rand Paul was interviewed by Alex Jones, a noted conspiracy theorist who spreads his message on his syndicated radio show and on his website, Infowars.com. Jones is a moon landing denier who believes the government acted as a guiding hand for the September 11 attacks and the Oklahoma City bombing, buys into the New World Order—the theory that a group of so-called elites are conspiring to form a singular, totalitarian global government—has accused American pop stars of being purveyors of Illuminati mind control—and that’s not even the half of it. Paul, his eyes wide, offered, “I think it’s a little scary in our country that we’re doing what's called ‘political profiling.’ People are worried about profiling people for the color of their skin. Now we’re profiling people for the color of their thought.” For any candidate laboring to gain admittance to America’s most exclusive club, the interview would have seemed an unlikely pit stop—but Rand Paul was not just any candidate.
Jones has recalled encountering Paul for the first time nearly two decades ago, when he heard him on Republic Radio, with personality Mark “Mark from Michigan” Koernke, another conspiracy theorist and part of the militia movement in the 1990s. Paul was on the air, Jones remembered, speaking on behalf of Ron Paul, his father, who was running a tough campaign for reelection to Congress in Texas. “It’s just weird how time flies. [Rand will] probably end up being president if we’re able to turn this country around. He’s got a real shot at it, except for the electronic voting machine fraud. I can read the tea leaves as anyone can,” Jones told his listeners.
Jones was right—about the tea leaves. Paul has secured his status as the early frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He is being baited daily to say, definitively, that he is running. The younger Paul is the successor to the Ron Paul throne. He inherited his fans, his donors, his staff, and his friends in the media. But to continue on the path to the nomination that he is on, he will have to prove that he is mainstream enough to win—which will mean, in part, emancipating himself from the very person who gave him literal and—not so long ago—political life, and from the fringe allies, like Jones, he was handed.
All the while, his father continues to make headlines with his every eyebrow-raising utterance.
Were he not his father’s son, Rand Paul’s credentials would have been enough only to qualify him to be a candidate for a state legislature.
He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1963, and raised in Lake Jackson, Texas. He attended Baylor University for a few years, and did so well on the MCAT that he was able to go to the Duke University School of Medicine without earning a bachelor’s degree.
In 1993, he moved with his wife to Bowling Green, Kentucky—whose history is highlighted by having been the nominal Confederate capital during the Civil War in a state that never seceded from the Union—and there began practicing ophthalmology.
The following year, he founded Kentucky Taxpayers United—becoming something of a local Grover Norquist. The anti-tax group issued report cards on state legislators’ records and asked them to sign a pledge. Then, in 2002, KTU reportedly became inactive—marking the end of Paul’s independent political involvement. Making an audacious bid for the U.S. Senate after eight years on a political hiatus would not strike most people at the logical next step.
Taking into account his father, of course, the trajectory of Paul’s political career makes more sense.
Ron Paul, an OBGYN, Air Force vet, and avid reader of Ayn Rand and Austrian economists like Hans F. Sennholz, decided to run for Congress in 1971, after President Richard Nixon killed the gold standard. He first entered the House in 1976 — and that year brought the younger Paul, then 13, with him to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, where Gerald Ford edged out Ronald Reagan for the presidential nomination.
As described by Vogue, Paul “enlisted his brothers and sisters in one of his father’s congressional campaigns, drew up door-knocking maps, and studied voting returns and poll data. At every turn, it was his father he looked up to.”
In 1988, having jumped the Republican ship, the elder Paul mounted a campaign for president as a Libertarian—with his son volunteering to help—ultimately securing less than 0.50 percent of the vote.
In the ensuing two decades after his defeat, the elder Paul occupied his place in Congress as what some have called a “grab-bag Libertarian”: he is a Constitutionalist, an isolationist, in favor of the legalization of marijuana, and against Medicare, the Federal Reserve and abortion. His government-should-stop-meddling message, highlighted for decades in his controversial newsletters—which were, before blogs, a popular medium for conservative discourse—earned him fans across generations and socioeconomic classes. By the time Paul decided to make another attempt for the White House in 2008, he was a right-wing folk hero with a cult-like following—coined the “liberty movement”—ready to organize.
With the country in debt, on the verge of economic collapse, suffering from war fatigue, engaging in rampant overspending, and welcoming domestic spying, it was, in many ways, the perfect time for the elder Paul’s message to break through. He criticized both parties, and he gained fans on both the left and on the right.
Paul began his campaign, as Slate's Dave Weigel put it, “as a fringe candidate with a mailing list.” But soon he began to make the Internet work for him. In a single day—the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party—as the younger Paul spoke on his behalf at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Paul raised $6 million from online contributors in a “moneybomb.” In total, the elder Paul had raised $34 million by the end of his campaign.
The enthusiasm—spiritual and financial—for the elder Paul was not enough to defeat the establishment. After failing to secure the nomination, he eventually suspended his campaign—but he did not suspend his political apparatus. That, he passed down to his son, around whom a campaign to draft him for the Senate had begun to shape up.
Rand Paul announced he would form an exploratory committee for a Senate campaign at just the right time, in May 2009. Dr. Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University (located in Bowling Green), told me that what set the stage for Paul’s candidacy was a combination of his father’s status, and the advent of the Tea Party. “All these things were necessary, but probably weren’t sufficient on their own [to make him a viable contender],” he said. “He probably had more of an impact on the Tea Party than the other way around.”
Paul formally announced in August, and from the start, was transparent about his objective to harness what he could of his father’s strengths and channel them in such a way that he would be viewed as a more broadly electable candidate. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported at the time: “He said his father’s political organization largely remains intact and could be reactivated to raise money for his Senate race.”
He told the Louisville Courier-Journal of his candidacy: “Some of [my father’s] supporters viewed [his campaign] as a cause…This could not only be a cause, but a winnable race.”
Making up Paul’s campaign staff were familiar faces from the cause.
Jack Hunter, an official blogger for the elder Paul, became a main adviser for Rand. (Hunter would ultimately be asked to leave the campaign after it was revealed he had previously expressed a number of controversial opinions—including that Abraham Lincoln deserved to be assassinated.) Doug Stafford, described by the National Review as having been “in the inner circle of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign,” became one of Paul’s closest and most trusted campaign advisers. And Jesse Benton was brought on to serve as Paul’s campaign chair, after working on two of his father’s congressional races (and marrying his granddaughter), effectively replacing David Adams, a longtime Paulite.
Paul also borrowed his father’s fundraising tactics.
On August 20 2009 (a date chosen to honor the elder Paul’s 74th birthday), Paul had a moneybomb, with the goal of raising $1 million. He fell short, taking in less than half that amount, but his haul was enough to scare his primary opponent, Trey Grayson. “We were curious how the money his dad could raise would translate to our race,” Grayson would later tell New York magazine. “That was the first time where I said, Wow, maybe there really is something here. He could be a lot more trouble than we thought. This is more than a few diehards. This is real. Money is real.”
Grayson saw red meat in the out-of-state origins of Paul’s donations. Of the roughly 15,500 donors who would ultimately contribute to Paul’s campaign, less than 3,500—fewer than a quarter—came from Kentucky.
Grayson pounced, telling The New York Times in November, “The celebrity factor is what is attracting people now…Mr. Paul has his dad’s following and his dad’s e-mail list, and he has shown he can raise money outside of the state…When voters really start paying attention, they’re going to find out that one candidate is getting 90 percent from Kentucky and the other is getting 80 percent of his money from out of the state, and that is not going to sit well with them.”
Paul didn’t blink. Asked by the Courier-Journal about the out-of-state support, his spokesperson shrugged, “I don’t care…This is a race of national importance.”
Grayson did his best to paint Paul as a radical by welding his father’s record to his platform, sending out a press release which read, “Paul: Too crazy for Kentucky”—an ill-advised strategy, given that being a Paul was precisely what his Tea Party supporters seemed to love about him, and Paul embraced it. When Alex Jones asked him, “Your policies are basically identical to your father, correct?” Paul said, “I’d say we'd be very, very similar. We might present the message sometimes differently…I think in some ways the message has to be broadened and made more appealing to the entire Republican electorate because you have to win a primary.”
And he did. Paul trampled Grayson, and then sailed through the general election, beating his opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat, 56 to 44 percent. When Paul was sworn in January 5, 2011, he became the first member of Congress to have a parent simultaneously serving in a different chamber.
Rand Paul had the benefit of observing both what made his father likable and popular, and what made him an also-ran. The elder Paul had many elements of a marketable message—but sounding, as he does, a bit like someone who might stop you on the street to hand you a pamphlet about gold, he was the wrong messenger. Paul has clung to their shared isolationist, minimalist government ideals—particularly marketable is his opposition to the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs, which has generated outrage and diplomatic upheaval—while moving toward the center-right establishment. He is comparatively statesmanlike, and wears his willingness to do what it takes to win on his sleeve—but unlike in scripture, the sins of the father may be visited on the son in presidential politics.
Last week, as it emerged that Paul was leading the polls in Iowa–where the caucuses will be held in 17 months–and in New Hampshire–the location of the first primaries, his father offered his opinion on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in the form of a column. In it, he chided “western media outlets” for rushing “to repeat government propaganda on the event”; and President Obama for holding a press conference “before an investigation” had been conducted. He wrote: “western media and politicians joined together to gain the maximum propaganda value from the disaster. It had to be Russia; It had to be Putin, they said.”
The commentary resulted in headlines like, Paul is Putin’s New Best Friend, and Paul Says U.S. May Share Responsibility for Malaysia Airplanes Crash. Rand Paul, as apparently is his policy, had no comment.
In March, he told the Daily Caller’s Alex Pappas that he has “pretty much quit answering” questions about his father’s statements. “I think over time, people will notice there are distinctions and differences,” he said. “I’ve been in the Senate three years, and I’ve created a record myself.”
But three years is not a very long time to be removed from a campaign run on your bloodline—certainly not long enough to make a convincing argument that ignoring it will make the association go away.
In a documentary about the notorious late Lee Atwater—an adviser to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—reporter Sam Donaldson recalled him being the first to advocate the push poll. “The first few questions are routine. The next question is, ‘Well, if you came to believe that Governor X was a pedophile, would that change your opinion?’ Now, the poller hasn’t said that Governor X is a pedophile—they simply planted the idea that if he were…” It’s a transparently sinister way to make someone guilty by grouping them with an unsavory concept.
Similarly, Rand Paul is seldom discussed without a mention of Ron Paul, and vice versa. For the majority of the public who are not “I STAND WITH RAND” sign-wielding supporters, distinguishing Rand Paul the individual from the tree he fell so close to may prove difficult.
“The very thing that makes him formidable could very well prove to be the very thing that makes him difficult to vote for—and that’s his last name,” Hogan Gidley, a veteran Republican operative, told me. To be electable, Paul will have to find the balance between appealing to the libertarian base that he inherited, and to establishment voters. “I don’t know that it’s balanceable,” Gidley said. “It’s just a very difficult balance. Rand Paul is a very talented politician ... but the question you asked me wasn’t ‘Is he a skilled politician?’ The question was, ‘Is he skilled enough to master that balance?’ And I don’t think he is, and I don’t know that anybody is.”