Last Stand?

The Cancer on Rand Paul’s Campaign

Paul, previously ‘the most interesting man in politics,’ is now just scenery in the 2016 campaign. How long can he stay in the race?

Last Monday, former Congressman and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul wrote to express his support for the Iran nuclear deal. The negotiation, he said, was “one of the two most important achievements of an otherwise pretty dismal Obama presidency” and, further, it proved “that sometimes taking a principled position means facing down overwhelming opposition from all sides and not backing down.”

Awkwardly, that opposition includes Rand Paul, his son, who not coincidentally is finding himself struggling in the polls and in the money race as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination.

According to an NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday, Paul commands just 4 percent support in New Hampshire–a loss of 10 percentage points since February.

Paul’s second-quarter financial haul was $7 million, which places him behind every Republican who has disclosed their earnings except for Carly Fiorina, who you may not have even heard of, Rick Perry, who is under indictment in Texas and barely qualifies for the first debate, Rick Santorum, who doesn’t qualify, Bobby Jindal, who had just six days to fundraise, and Mike Huckabee, whose campaign platform seems to be uncomfortable Holocaust references.

Paul’s super PAC, America's Liberty PAC, raised just $3.1 million. In comparison, Jeb Bush’s super PAC raised $103 million.

Noting Paul’s collapse, FiveThirtyEight asked, “What’s Wrong With Rand Paul’s Campaign?” The answer, writer Harry Enten concluded, was that Paul had faded from the headlines and, simultaneously, his favorability among Republicans had declined.

But that’s more of a symptom than the cause of the cancer on Paul’s candidacy. The root of the decay is this: As Rand Paul has campaigned, it has become increasingly evident that he is not the candidate his supporters were promised he would be–a more electable version of his father. And the candidate he did turn out to be is not interesting or authentic enough to stand out from the 20,000 other Republicans seeking the nomination. Paul, previously “the most interesting man in politics,” is now just scenery.

Ron Paul raised enormous sums of money in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns (though, at this same juncture in the primary in 2011, the elder Paul had raised just $4.5 million in the second quarter), capitalizing on the post-Bush administration war-fatigue and big-government skepticism that made his anti-interventionist, libertarian ideals seem sunny in comparison. But Ron Paul could not overcome his outsider reputation. He was seen, despite his grassroots momentum (complete with legendary “IT’S HAPPENING” gif), as an elfin, fringe character–too much of an oddball to demand serious consideration.

For Rand to succeed, the conventional wisdom went, he would need to hold onto his father’s base of supporters while appealing to other constituencies—most importantly, mainstream Republican primary voters.

But in his attempt to seem more appealing to those other constituencies, Paul has compromised himself into obscurity. He takes, with the exception of national security issues, positions that are no different from those of any other GOP candidate—and though his reasons for arriving at those positions are nuanced and complex, that doesn't make the end result any different. Paul is an anti-gay marriage, life-begins-at-conception, boots-on-the-ground (in limited quantities!) -to-combat-ISIS, prayer-breakfast-pandering right-winger. But one whose wheels are always turning!

His supporters are catching on, and they’re not happy about it.

“People just don’t like that kind of dishonesty,” Justin Raimondo, founder of and former Rand-zealot, told me.

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Raimondo used to believe, as many Paul supporters do (or did), that at the end of the day, he would Stand with Rand™ because Rand was the only politician with a shot at the White House whose beliefs came close to mirroring his own. But one disappointment after another wore Raimondo down. When Paul signed Senator Tom Cotton’s Iran letter, which was designed to halt the very negotiations Paul claimed to favor, it was the last straw.

“He’s basically just selling out,” Raimondo said.

“How is he different from any of the other candidates?” he asked. “His father stood out. I mean, he really stood out. Rand is sort of going in the opposite direction—he’s trying to blend in. But that’s not a smart strategy.”

Nowhere is the limits of Paul’s strategy more evident than his opposition to the Iran deal his father so enthusiastically supports. Paul’s evolution on Iran is his clearest flip-flop, though it was gradual. In 2007, when he was proudly wearing the title “Ron Paul clone” given to him by conspiracy theorist, radio host, and iodine droplet salesman Alex Jones, Paul was claiming that if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon, it wouldn’t even be a big deal. Today, he says that the fact that the Iran deal leaves the country with nuclear capacity is grounds to dismiss it altogether.

On top of his weakened reputation and wheezing presidential campaign, spokespeople for which ignored requests for comment for this article, Paul has the added burden of an upcoming Senate campaign to contend with. His $7 million second-quarter haul is, according to CNN, “split between the presidential bank account and a joint fundraising committee."

Kentucky law stipulates that Paul can’t run for both offices at once, and a measure passed in the state Senate to permit him to won’t be voted on until February, when the legislature is back in session—too late to make a difference for the campaign, for which Paul will need to formally file in January. So the state party is reckoning with the logistics of ensuring Paul can run for both seats.

But that won’t ensure a positive outcome for his state or his party.

A source in Kentucky politics conceded that while “conventional wisdom would say” that Paul needs to pick one race or the other so as to not jeopardize his seat, “Senator Paul has shown time and time again that he does not always follow conventional wisdom.”

The nightmare “worst-case scenario,” the source said, “is that he loses both.”

It’s just a nightmare, of course. The reality is, in this primary, nothing matters and anything could happen. Paul’s failure to sustain his moment is owed not just to his “selling out,” as Raimondo calls it, but to the fact that he made the mistake of testing the waters too early and too publicly. Paul began campaigning in the spring of 2014—a full year before he would formally announce. He filled a void by being the only likely candidate consistently touring the country and acting like, well, a candidate for the summer and some of the fall. During that time, he was rewarded with countless headlines, in-depth profiles and, the aforementioned label “most interesting man in politics” (not that that’s hard). It was inevitable, in retrospect, that Paul-fatigue would set in and other candidates would fill his space. It’s not inevitable now, but entirely possible that he will rise again.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rand Paul's fundraising numbers placed him above only Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry. That has been corrected to reflect that he also outpaces Huckabee, Jindal and Santorum.