The Rally for the Republicans at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center isn’t your standard rubber-chicken campaign event. Frank Simon, a Louisville religious-right leader known for his strong opposition to gay marriage, leads the crowd of 800 in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Rev. Jerry Stephenson, a conservative black pastor, delivers the invocation, asking “Father God” to “help us start a revolution.” Then the Grammy-nominated rock and reggae singer Aimee Allen, decked out in tattoos, patterned stockings, and high-top sneakers, performs a three-song set, culminating in an anthem helped along by the candidate’s sons on acoustic guitars: “We don’t want no war no more / Bring our boys home to our shore.”
This improbable opening is topped off by the Rev. Jeff Fugate, the right-wing pastor of Clays Mill Road Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Unlike the previous act, Fugate doesn’t sing about the PATRIOT Act or inciting a riot. Instead he gives a Falwellesque speech about restoring American values.
Nearly an hour later, the audience, which paid $25 a head, is treated to the main event: Rand Paul, a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, making his first joint appearance with his famous father, Ron Paul, the libertarian presidential candidate and 11-term GOP congressman from Texas.
“It was a little weird,” Rand Paul’s campaign manager, David Adams, admits afterward. “But it also shows what’s great about our movement. We are building a big tent that appeals to everyone from the civil libertarians to the Christian right.” That tent covers a vast army of hippies, Birchers, don’t-tread-on-me libertarians, Tea Party activists, conservatives clinging to either Bibles or guns, and blue blazer–wearing GOP regulars. Rand Paul has managed to tap into his father’s national following of libertarians and anti-war advocates without (so far) alienating traditional Republicans in the Blue Grass State.
This highly unusual combination may make Rand Paul the most serious libertarian-leaning candidate for U.S. Senate in recent history. Self-styled “Ron Paul Republicans” have run for office before. A few of them—congressional candidates B.J. Lawson in North Carolina and Amit Singh in Virginia, for example—showed genuine promise in 2008 but were burdened by campaigning in deeply Democratic districts the same year that Barack Obama swept into the White House. Rand Paul is running in a political climate that has soured on Democrats, in a state where Obama was never popular to begin with. His familial relationship with the elder Paul isn’t the only thing that makes him stand out from the pack of Ron Paul Republicans. Rand Paul might actually win.
‘I Have to Win This Race on My Own’
When the increasingly erratic Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) announced his retirement last July, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson was supposed to be the GOP nominee. Grayson had already set up an exploratory committee, apparently with Bunning’s blessing. He was the first choice of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Republican leaders in Washington, D.C., and Kentucky preferred him even to Bunning, a former professional baseball star who had become cantankerous and unpredictable toward the end of his second term.
So when Bunning took himself out of the running—complaining bitterly that his fellow Republicans did “everything in their power to dry up my fund raising”—Grayson seemed like the natural front-runner. A Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll taken in late August and early September of 2009 showed him leading upstart Rand Paul by 15 percentage points. But by December, Public Policy Polling showed Paul drubbing Grayson by 19 points, 44 percent to 25 percent.
If Paul wins the primary, he will, as a Republican, be at least the slight favorite in the November election. He has outpolled both leading Democrat contenders in every public survey taken since December. In February, a Rasmussen poll showed Paul ahead of Attorney General Jack Conway by eight points—twice Grayson’s margin in a survey taken at the same time—and leading Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo by 11 points.
Paul also has been winning the money race, although that contest is closer. His grassroots-organized Internet “money bombs,” patterned after a technique his father’s followers used to great effect in the presidential race, have produced hundreds of thousands of dollars in single-day periods. Paul has raised nearly $1.9 million since last year, edging out Grayson’s haul of more than $1.7 million.
Grayson’s supporters—who include much of the state’s GOP hierarchy, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—are clearly irritated by this turn of events. After the Pauls’ first father-and-son rally, Grayson campaign manager Nate Hodson issued a statement to the press blasting them both. “Maybe Ron Paul’s skills as a career politician will help his son Rand explain to Kentuckians how closing Guantanamo and releasing the prisoners will make us safer and how a pro-choice marijuana advocate will best represent Kentucky Republicans as their Senate nominee,” the statement read. “The truth is that Ron and Rand Paul are not conservatives on national security and social issues and are completely out of touch with Kentucky.”
The tone is very different within the Paul camp. “Dr. Paul’s office,” a sweet-sounding Southern lady answers the phone. When I’m transferred to the candidate, he tells me the biggest challenge his campaign faces is “not being too optimistic, because things really could not be going better.” He mentions the independent poll showing him with a 19-point lead among Republican primary voters. “Our internal polling has me ahead, but not by quite that much,” Paul says. “Maybe they’ll run a bunch of ads with someone narrating in a sinister voice to try and beat me in the last couple of weeks.”
The younger Paul looks and sounds a lot like his father. The similarities don’t end there. They both graduated from Duke Medical School—Ron Paul is an obstetrician, Rand Paul an ophthalmologist—and are reverentially referred to by their supporters as “Dr. Paul.” Paul followed in his father’s footsteps a second time by becoming involved in politics. He gave his first public speech in 1984, before a crowd of 300. The venue was a debate with Texas Rep. Phil Gramm, who was running against his father for the Republican nomination for Senate. When the elder Paul had to go back to Washington for House votes, he let his son stand in for him at such forums. Rand Paul did well enough in the debates, but Gramm easily won the primary. In 2008 Paul traveled with his father’s presidential campaign and spoke on his behalf in nearly a dozen states.
“I wouldn’t be where I am right now without my dad,” Paul acknowledges. “It would be hard for me to make my first campaign a statewide race against an experienced politician if it weren’t for the fact that my dad is now famous. But at the same time, I have to win this race on my own. He can’t do it for me.”
‘I Am 1,000,000 Percent on Board With Rand Paul’
Like his father, Rand Paul is a culturally conservative family man. He married Kelley Ashby 19 years ago, and they settled down in Bowling Green in 1993. Rand and Kelley now have three children, ranging in age from 10 to 16. His campaign bumper stickers and website are modeled after his father’s from the 2008 presidential primaries. And the Pauls are running on similar—but not identical—platforms.
Like his dad, Rand Paul emphasizes his opposition to federal bailouts of private industry, particularly the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). It’s an issue that puts him on the side of many rank-and-file Republicans while showcasing his independence from a party leadership that ultimately acquiesced to the Wall Street giveaway. “It divided a lot of Republicans,” Paul says. “The mainstream went along with whatever the party told them to do.”
When it comes to the Federal Reserve, Paul is also a chip off the old block. He supports his father’s “audit the Fed” bill, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, decrying the “lack of transparency in our monetary system.” Paul echoes his father’s complaint that the Federal Reserve “creates money out of thin air,” including “trillions of dollars in debt.” “We can’t sustain that,” he says. “We’re going broke.” He similarly adheres to the Austrian school’s theory of the business cycle, which holds that the central bank artificially lowers interest rates and inflates the money supply, devaluing the currency, triggering risky investments, and creating speculative bubbles.
To get more bang for his fiat currency, Rand Paul has a second tab on his campaign website dedicated to monetary policy under the heading of “inflation.” “The Federal Government is running back-breaking budget deficits, amassing crippling debt, and borrowing trillions of dollars from the Chinese to finance its extravagance,” the site warns. “Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve, an unelected group of private bankers, is printing trillions of dollars to bail out private industry, purchase government debt, and flood the market with cheap credit.”
Although these issues are identified with Ron Paul, they are gaining traction within the mainstream of his party (and even with some Democrats). Every Republican in the House has signed onto the Federal Reserve Transparency Act. With Democrats now in power, the GOP increasingly rails against deficits and the national debt. Even citing the Constitution and the doctrine of enumerated powers are once again in fashion. In Virginia last February, a group of mostly Bush-friendly conservative movement leaders endorsed a “Mount Vernon Statement” that aims to link the right under the rubric of constitutionally limited government.
On some social issues, Rand Paul—again like his father—is closer to conservatives than most libertarians. He believes the government should recognize marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He says human life begins at conception, and he therefore opposes legal abortion and describes himself as “100 percent pro-life.” In both cases, Paul’s preference is to strip federal courts of jurisdiction over these issues and return them to the states, a position too conservative for some and too libertarian for others.
What set Ron Paul apart from most Republicans, though, was his passionate opposition to the Iraq war and to the GOP’s interventionist foreign policy. Here Rand Paul is careful to tailor his arguments in ways that appeal to more conventional conservatives. The only section of his campaign website that deals at length with the war appears under the heading “National Defense.”
“Defending our Country is the most important function of the federal government,” Paul says on his website. “When we are threatened, it is the obligation of our representatives to unleash the full arsenal of power that is granted by and derived from free men and women.” Paul argues that only Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war but also says that there are times when the president “can and should make military responses without Congressional authority.”
“As a member of Congress,” the statement continues, “Dr. Rand Paul would have demanded and voted in the affirmative for a declaration of war with Afghanistan. He would have demanded and voted against a declaration of war with Iraq.” In the end, that is not much different from his father’s voting record: The elder Paul voted for the resolution that authorized the initial invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and against the authorization of force against Iraq, while unsuccessfully insisting that Congress vote on formal declarations of war against both countries. But the emphasis is clearly different.
The Rand Paul campaign also uses a somewhat different tone than Ron Paul’s on military spending: “In Rand’s proposed budget, defense spending would represent a larger percentage of the total budget than it does today, while military spending on unnecessary programs and unconstitutional operations would be eliminated.” Says Rand Paul campaign manager David Adams: “What people are seeing is that despite what our opponent says, Rand is actually very strong on national defense. He believes in doing what it takes to keep the American people safe and secure.”
This careful messaging has helped Rand win the mainstream conservative support that eluded his father’s Republican presidential campaign. The biggest example is the endorsement of former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who said she was “proud to support great grassroots candidates like Dr. Paul.” In an oblique reference to Paul’s deviations from the Republican line on foreign policy and civil liberties, Palin continued, “While there are issues we disagree on, he and I are both in agreement that it’s time to shake up the status quo in Washington and stand up for common sense ideas.” Trey Grayson’s campaign responded by initially questioning the authenticity of Palin’s endorsement.
Palin isn’t the only prominent Republican to pick Paul over Grayson. The publisher, flat-tax maven, and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes is a Paul backer. So is former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, whose organization FreedomWorks lists Paul as one of the five most important candidates to support in 2010. Concerned Women for America has endorsed Paul, helping to allay concerns about his social conservatism. Gun Owners of America weighed in on Paul’s behalf as well, though there were never any questions about his opposition to gun control.
Paul is even starting to be mentioned alongside other conservative movement–approved candidates in the Republican primaries: Marco Rubio in Florida, Ovide Lamontagne in New Hampshire, and Chuck DeVore in California. Such company has helped him appeal to Republicans who wanted to read his father out of the party in 2008, such as Erick Erickson of the activist conservative blog RedState.
During the presidential primaries, RedState users with accounts less than six months old were banned from posting about Ron Paul. “Hey, we’re sure some of Ron Paul’s supporters really are Republicans,” Erickson and Leon Wolf wrote at the time. But this year, things are different. “Fiorina, Ayotte, and Grayson become establishment candidates,” Erickson argued in a post. “That means they must all three be beaten.” Even if that means supporting Rand Paul? “I am 1,000,000 percent on board with Rand Paul.”
‘A $2 Trillion Deficit—Now That’s Extreme’
So far Paul is doing what he needs to do to win the primary: raising money from his father’s ardent libertarian backers nationwide while winning over mainstream conservative Republicans in Kentucky. The libertarian Republican activist Eric Dondero, a disgruntled former staffer of the elder Paul who contemplated a primary challenge against him, praises Rand Paul as a “pro-defense libertarian.” At the same time, dovish Ludwig von Mises Institute President Lew Rockwell is politely supportive—though not effusive—on his website, despite regarding much of the Republican primary electorate to which Rand must appeal as “red-state fascists.”
“It’s just a constellation of positive things all going on at once,” says Paul. The first is that the emphasis has been shifted from foreign policy, where Paulite views are at odds with those of the GOP rank and file, to domestic affairs, where Paul can run as a Republican who really means what he says. The Tea Party movement has oriented conservative activism toward protesting the size and cost of government. “People sometimes say to me, ‘Aren’t your views a little extreme?’ ” Paul recounts. “I say to them that I don’t think a balanced budget is extreme. I think a $2 trillion deficit, now that’s extreme.”
Not everyone is happy, however. Websites like Too Kooky for Kentucky continue to attack Paul as a pot-smoking, terrorist-sympathizing, abortion-supporting, radical libertarian. Nor are all national conservative commentators convinced that Rand Paul is one of them. The right-wing columnist Debbie Schlussel, who excoriated “the anti-war, anti-Gitmo, pan-terrorist, 9/11 conspiracy theory, pro-Iran, and anti-American views of the Paul son,” says the candidate is “equally nutty” as his father.
The younger Paul is clearly aware of the damage such attacks can do, especially since he is running in a closed Republican primary. So he has taken steps to avoid some of the controversies that enmeshed his father. Rand Paul energetically distances himself from racists, anti-Semites, and 9/11 truthers. When former campaign coordinator Chris Hightower was linked to a MySpace page that contained racist remarks and alleged that America had provoked the 9/11 attacks, he was promptly sacked. His father’s presidential campaign, by contrast, never held anyone accountable for some bigoted statements that appeared two decades ago in one of his newsletters, The Ron Paul Survival Report.
Rand Paul also steps carefully when discussing blowback from American military intervention. He and his father were interviewed jointly by a Kentucky television station before the Rally for the Republicans, and both were asked about whether America was to blame for 9/11. The elder Paul gave the kind of meandering answer that would have Rudy Giuliani straining at the leash to pounce, emphasizing that “policies have consequences, ideas have consequences.”
Rand Paul framed his response much differently. “What I would say is, the most important thing to say from the beginning is that if someone murders your family, it is their fault,” the son said. “We say these people attacked us, it is their fault.…We are not to blame for people attacking us.” He then proceeded to make some of the same points his father made.
Some of these stylistic differences irk libertarians who prefer Ron Paul’s less conciliatory approach. One of Rand Paul’s staffers, Christie Gillespie, resigned from the campaign after being ordered to refrain from criticizing Mitch McConnell and other Republicans. But it is the substantive differences between the Pauls that tend to bother libertarians more.
Unlike his father, Rand opposes civilian trials for terror detainees. He would “ultimately” close Gitmo, but not until it is determined what will be done with the prisoners, who he does not want sent to the United States. In their joint interview, when the elder Paul expressed his opposition to trying suspected terrorists before military tribunals, Rand quipped, “Now my father has only been here for 20 minutes, and you’re already making me disagree with him. We haven’t even had a chance to say hello.” Ron Paul responded, “I think Rand just proved that he’s his own man and can think for himself.”
Some libertarians fear the noninterventionist message is being lost entirely. David Adams cautions that “it is an oversimplification to call [Rand Paul] an anti-war candidate,” even though he would not have voted for the Iraq war. The younger Paul is still undecided about what our policy should be in Afghanistan. “Rand is terrified of the foreign policy his father has supported,” opines a libertarian activist who says he was rebuffed when he tried to arrange a meeting between Rand Paul staffers and J Street, an organization that bills itself as a more dovish Israel lobby.
Yet many such libertarians remain reluctant to criticize the younger Paul publicly. “All of the signs I’ve seen so far are bad,” the activist says. “And politicians usually get worse rather than better once they’re in office. But we’re still trying to be hopeful.” Another professional libertarian declares that the candidate will “either be exactly the kind of thing we need, someone who is reliable on the most important things but willing to be tactical when he needs to be, or he’ll turn out to be so pragmatic that he’s indistinguishable from other Republicans.”
“I’ve heard from people who love my dad who don’t like some of the positions I’ve taken,” Rand Paul says. “Well, I love my dad too, but I don’t agree with him all of the time.” The younger Paul sees his strategy as part of bringing small-government ideas into the mainstream. “I’m trying to emphasize our similarities, not our differences,” he says. “I am not trying to splinter off into a smaller and smaller group. I am trying to create a force than can win an election.”
The delicate balance that Rand Paul is trying to strike is a difficult one. Ron Paul’s campaign in the 2008 primaries was unable to pull it off, if it even tried. Republican congressman turned Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr tried and failed even more spectacularly during the general election. But there is one Republican success story in recent history when it comes to the strategy of making anti-interventionist politics palatable to interventionist conservatives. His name is Ron Paul.
When Ron decided to return to Congress in 1996, the national Republican leadership had a different idea: They persuaded Democratic congressman Greg Laughlin to switch parties and run for re-election in his Texas district as a Republican. Paul had to challenge Laughlin in the primary. Former President George H.W. Bush, then-Gov. George W. Bush, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich all enthusiastically supported Laughlin. “I did not see a single Dallas Cowboys fan boo Deion Sanders,” Gingrich said as he tried to persuade Texans to embrace another team switcher.
Ron Paul tapped a national army of libertarians to finance his campaign, raising more than 60 percent of his funds outside the district. But he also pitched himself as the true conservative—his lifetime American Conservative Union rating at the time was 91 out of 100 to Laughlin’s middling 56—by touting his early ties to Reagan and finessing his differences with mainstream Republicans.
“They tried to paint me as a drug pusher,” Paul later complained to Campaigns & Elections magazine, “but the voters weren’t buying it. I had never advocated legalization and they knew it. I had condemned the federal war on drugs.…It’s had just terrible consequences.” Paul’s campaign manager in that race, Mark Elam, even took issue with Laughlin’s criticisms of his candidate on the first Iraq war. “That was completely outrageous,” he said, stating that Paul had opposed the decision to go to war but “fully supported our effort once the war was underway.” Ron Paul won the primary and went on to be the most consistently libertarian member of Congress, representing a congressional district that voted for George W. Bush and John McCain.
As with the elder Paul, Rand Paul’s campaign raises questions beyond whether he wins or loses this election. Can libertarians work within the Republican Party? At what price comes political power? “I think a lot of people who didn’t support him in the primaries are starting to understand that my dad was right about a lot of things,” says the younger Paul. But as his dad says, Rand Paul is his own man.