Rand Paul’s Extreme GOP Makeover

Libertarian, conservative, neither? The only thing clear about the senator is that he has the potential to revolutionize the backward-looking party if he runs for president.

Doug Mills/The New York Times, via Redux

When Rand Paul spoke to a packed ballroom of conservative activists at CPAC last year, he tagged the Obama administration as “completely out of control.” But he saved some of his harshest criticism for his own party, calling the GOP of old “stale and moss covered,” and insisting that the Republican Party has to change.

One year later, Paul is again speaking to CPAC, but this time he’s more than the “Stand with Rand” senator who had just filibustered an Obama nominee for 13 hours to protest drone policy. He is now the de facto head of the libertarian wing of the party, still pushing the GOP to broaden its message and its membership, and serious enough about running for president that his allies are working to change the Kentucky law that would bar him from running for president and his Senate seat simultaneously in 2016.

If things go Rand Paul’s way, national Republicans will follow the lead of Nathan Haney, the executive director of the Jefferson County, Kentucky Republican Party, who held an event last week for the local GOP to meet minority and low-income voters in Louisville, a city that has not had a Republican mayor in more than 50 years.

“We’re tired of losing,” says Haney. Although Republicans dominate the federal offices in Kentucky, Democrats have held one or both houses of the state legislature for nearly a century, while just two Republicans have occupied the governor’s mansion since 1947. “At some point you have to look in the mirror and say what is it that we’re doing wrong?”

That bit of soul searching, rare for Republicans at the national level, has come to Jefferson County though the example of the state’s junior senator, Paul. “What we have found in the time that he’s been a senator is that Senator Paul has made it his goal to grow the party, nationwide and at the local level,” Haney said, pointing to Paul’s trips to inner-city Detroit, as well as historically black colleges across the country and poverty-ridden areas of Kentucky where Republicans rarely make inroads.

But beyond his itineraries, Paul has also used his three years of votes and visibility in the U.S. Senate, including a 13-hour filibuster, to blow up the checklist of exactly what it means to be a conservative Republican.

While Paul has been aggressively pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, and almost rabidly small government, he has also staked out positions on privacy, intervention overseas, and mandatory drug sentencing that defy both his party’s current instincts and its leaders in Washington.

And while Paul has loudly championed the Tea Party movement since his 2010 campaign for Senate, he alone last week called on Tea Party darling Ted Nugent to apologize for a vile rant against President Obama.

The next day, Paul attended the Tea Party’s fifth anniversary celebration in Washington to urge activists to hold strong against federal spending but also to make their message respectful of the president and to take it beyond their own political base. “We have to reach out to more people, more than just those of us here,” he told the activists.

The result of all of Paul’s machinations is not only a senator who defies easy classification, but also a 2016 presidential contender, far more mainstream than his father, with the potential to reshape partisan coalitions and revolutionize the Republican Party.

In a Candidate Paul, voters would get an ACLU-aligned constitutional conservative who wants to rebrand his party and reach past traditional Republican voters while he does it. If the electorate two years from now is looking for a change from the Clinton years, the Bush years, and a GOP that seems to be looking backwards, Paul is about as new a concept as voters will find.

“My party is a bit lost in the wilderness right now,” said Patrick Griffin, a past adviser to numerous GOP presidential campaigns who is now a managing director for Purple Strategies. The firm’s latest Purple Poll (PDF) of likely New Hampshire primary voters that showed Mitt Romney winning a hypothetical primary in 2016. Second to Romney was Rand Paul.

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“New Hampshire takes personal freedom very seriously. It’s on our license plates, ‘Live free or die,’” Griffin said of Paul’s potential appeal in New Hampshire. At the moment, Griffin predicts Paul will be “one of the first flavors of the month” for the run-up to the presidential election. Beyond that, Griffin said, “What we’re seeing is establishment versus social conservatives. If he is able to straddle both sides of that, people start to say that’s different, that’s interesting.”

So far, Paul is faring well in early polls, with a CBS national poll showing him leading the Republican feild along with Jeb Bush, and a PPP Iowa caucus poll with him polling second to Mike Huckabee, who won there in 2008. While Huckabee ran away with the social conservative votes in the PPP poll, Paul and Bush lead among moderates, 20 and 19 percent, respectively.

If South Carolina Republicans look for a more overtly religious conservative than Paul has ever been, a strong showing in Florida would become crucial.

“It is the most-wide open I have ever seen it,” said Alex Patton, a Florida-based GOP consultant, of early Republican inclinations. “I think there is no one answer. The Republican tribes are pretty well fractured right now.”

Patton described early support for all possible candidates essentially frozen until Bush decides on a potential run, and added that money for Florida’s pricey media markets, along with momentum from earlier GOP primary wins, will be the ingredients for success in Florida.

“As far as Rand Paul goes, there is little to no appetite for pure libertarianism here,” Patton said. “It’s all about the economy right now. Voters aren’t going to want hear about anything other than jobs and the economy.”

No matter the specific message, Marc Hetherington, a Vanderbilt University professor of political science who studies voter polarization, said that Republican results in the 2014 midterm elections could affect candidates like Paul in 2016 that are pushing to broaden the party past its traditional base.

“He might have some appeal for expanding Republican constituencies in the general election, but that actually might hurt him in the primaries,” Hetherington said. “It seems to me the most obvious thing in the world that Republicans need to reach out to more minorities, but you can easily delude yourself into thinking otherwise if you just won the last election.”

But for Haney, the self-described “tired of losing” Jefferson County Republican in Kentucky, the bigger-is-better message for the Republican Party is essential for the party’s future and Rand Paul is delivering it.

“With Senator Paul, you may not agree with him— and a lot of the folks he talks to in Detroit and here in Louisville they don’t all agree with him,” Haney said. “But at least they know where he stands and they know he’s genuine about trying to help. And that right there, that transcends any divide.”