Rand Paul’s chief strategist is leaving his Senate post to run the Kentucky Republican’s political shop.
Doug Stafford, who is widely seen as Paul’s closest adviser, will soon resign as chief of staff to manage Paul’s national political operation. Today’s news is the clearest sign yet that Paul, a potential 2016 contender, is building a presidential campaign.
“It’s part of a natural evolution for Rand’s team,” says Trygve Olson, a Republican consultant who works with Paul. “Rand is doing a lot of things right now, so there’s a need to expand. Given Doug’s background in both establishment politics and grassroots politics, he’s a perfect fit.”
Stafford, a longtime conservative activist, first rose to prominence as Paul’s confidant during the 2010 campaign, and has been his highest-ranking Senate aide ever since. Previously, he was in the inner circle of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, and worked as a consultant for the Campaign for Liberty.
Stafford will be focused on directing the senator’s organization in early-primary states, his calendar, and his communications. He will also run Paul’s political-action committees, which are expected to grow. Those groups — RAND PAC and Rand Paul for U.S. Senate — are the financial and political foundation for Paul’s likely presidential campaign.
And it sure looks like Paul is planning to jump into the 2016 race. His upcoming schedule is packed with primary-related stops, and sources say it’ll only get busier. That’s why Stafford is making the jump now, and not after the 2014 election — Paul wants his senior aide at his side as he hits the trail.
Paul has two upcoming trips to Iowa, a speech in New Hampshire on May 20, and a lecture at the Ronald Reagan presidential library on May 31. He’s also planning events in South Carolina, among other states.
“We are considering it,” Paul said last month at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast when asked whether he’ll run for president. “You know, I want to be part of the national debate. So whether I run or not, being considered is something that allows me to have a larger microphone.”
Expect Stafford to guide Paul in making strategic endorsements, too, as the senator looks to build his network of supporters and allies. Earlier this week, for example, Paul endorsed embattled former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who’s struggling to win a House seat but remains a force in state politics. Last year, Stafford was instrumental in helping Paul to connect on a personal level with Mitt Romney, after his father battled Romney in the primary. The younger Paul eventually endorsed Romney and won a speaking slot at the national convention.
Though hardly the front-runner, Paul is well positioned to have a real shot at the 2016 nomination, and run a presidential campaign quite different from his father’s quixotic bids. He is a favorite of tea-party activists as well as a forceful legislator who’s part of an influential bloc of young conservative senators. His March filibuster against the Obama administration’s drone policy won him praise, especially from conservatives and libertarian-leaning Republicans.
“Rand’s appeal goes beyond the Tea Party,” says Fritz Wenzel, a pollster for the senator and a former Ron Paul adviser. “That’s why he’s been successful, and will continue to be successful. I know it’s early in the game, but I think he’s going to be in that top tier, winning over people who are conservatives, independents, and people who aren’t even in the Republican party, but appreciate his perspective.”
In March, Paul won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, beating Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and other contenders. A Public Policy Polling survey last month pegged him and Rubio as the two leading candidates to win the Republican nomination.
Paul began his career as an ophthalmologist, and casually advised his father’s many political campaigns over the past three decades. He decided to run for the Senate in 2010 after becoming frustrated with President Obama’s first-term agenda, and beat Trey Grayson, a prominent Kentucky Republican, in a hotly contested primary.
According to Capitol Hill insiders, Stafford, a 41-year-old New York native, told his staff today about his transition. He then informed friends and aides to Senate Republicans, including advisers to GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
Josh Holmes, McConnell’s chief of staff, tells me that Paul is making a smart move by tapping Stafford to lead his national efforts. “Doug takes great pleasure in operating behind the scenes without any public recognition, but his fingerprints are all over the conservative movement’s new generation,” he says.
That quiet tenure as Paul’s legislative counselor is over. Moving forward, Stafford will have a Karl Rove–like role within the Rand Paul apparatus. Instead of rushing through the Capitol with Paul, he’ll be trekking across Iowa and other key states. Only in politics does leaving Washington, D.C., for the cornfields constitute a promotion.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.