Soon after Rand Paul won Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary in May, his campaign was rocked — not by an affair or a kamikaze YouTube clip, but by his own textbook libertarianism. In a series of post-election interviews, Paul criticized parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, expressing concern about the federal government’s power to regulate private behavior. For raising a question about the landmark bill, Paul was roundly lambasted by the press, Democrats, and many Republicans. “Everybody piled on,” he laments in an interview with National Review. To stop the bleeding, Paul quickly went mum, canceling a scheduled sitdown with NBC’s Meet the Press and other media appearances.
Now, two months later, Paul leads in the polls, topping Democrat Jack Conway, the state’s attorney general, by seven points in Rasmussen’s latest survey. His campaign has also had its best quarter at the bank, raking in $1.1 million. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that he still feels burned by that civil-rights firestorm. “Since the election, they’ve been trying to characterize me as something I’m not,” he says. “Same with the tea parties. At every rally, they’re trying to find the one sign that makes the tea parties look racist. It has been a concerted effort.”
Paul, 47, an ophthalmologist by profession, says the kerfuffle has changed the way he campaigns. “After the primary, I really wanted to jump right into the national debate,” he says. His civil-rights remarks, he admits, “have made doing that a little more difficult.” However, “No one [in the GOP] is forcing me to do anything. I do exactly what I want, but I am also realistic about what it takes to run a campaign and get elected.” For instance, instead of calling for the elimination of many federal departments — as his father, Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican congressman and former presidential candidate, regularly does — Paul says he is trying to “nibble around the edges,” to “not be the person who says he will eliminate every department in the federal government. My dad freely will say that, that he would eliminate at least half of the departments, but he is just more forthright.”
So is Paul a libertarian like his father? Depends on what you mean by that, he says. He tells us that he sees himself as a “constitutional conservative.” But he adds, “If you say that libertarianism means you really believe in a stricter construction of the Constitution, that you believe in a government that is much closer to the way the Founding Fathers envisioned,” then yes, he could be considered a libertarian of sorts.
Quite a cagey answer. “I have a target on me,” Paul laughs. “If you take my shirt off, you can see the target on my back.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that Paul shuns the spotlight — or will repudiate his beliefs. If he wins in November, he says, he is interested in helping to form a new “nucleus” of conservatives in the Senate — a “tea-party caucus.” Does that mean he would consider voting for a GOP leader other than Sen. Mitch McConnell, his fellow Kentucky Republican and Senate minority leader? “Maybe,” Paul says. For now, however, he is pleased to have McConnell’s help on the trail, especially after the senior senator backed Paul’s primary opponent.