If Paul ran for president, he would no doubt be the underdog, given the Republican Party’s post-Reagan penchant for nominating only establishment figures. But two consecutive presidential defeats have discredited the establishment in the eyes of many activists.
Mallory Factor, who runs a popular “Monday Meeting” of conservative activists in Charleston, S.C., had Paul speak to his group recently and reported that the response was very favorable. “He has a fresh appeal,” Factor says. “And the mailing lists he inherits from his father’s two campaigns are a huge fundraising and organizational head start” in South Carolina and other states that will vote early in the 2016 nominating process.
The reaction in other early-voting states is also favorable. “I don’t think you can underestimate how big of a moment this was,” conservative Iowa talk-radio host Steve Deace told Politico, speaking of Paul’s filibuster. “If the Iowa caucuses were tomorrow, he would win in a landslide.”
Even Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential effort, told Politico that Paul could be a formidable candidate. “I can’t tell you how many hours and meetings are devoted to discussing the candidate’s vision in a campaign,” said Schmidt. “Well, you wouldn’t have to do that with him. . . . He’s got the right combination of principles, oratory skills, smarts, and showmanship.”
Now that Paul has seized the limelight, he will begin a process of being grilled and dissected by a media that is largely hostile to his libertarian message. He delivers that message more smoothly and effectively than his father does — the elder Paul has been tagged at times as cranky — but Paul’s strength, his freshness, is also a potential weakness. After his upset GOP-primary win for the Senate in 2010, the neophyte Paul, who has held office for only two years, gave a now-infamous interview on MSNBC in which he disastrously questioned the constitutionality of parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Since then, Paul has done a better job of steering what he calls “a middle ground between pure libertarianism and traditional conservatism,” but some GOP leaders still view him as a loose cannon. One senator told me privately that if Paul runs, GOP voters would be unlikely to shake a sense that Paul “has a veiled radical agenda that would undermine the military, leave Israel in the lurch, and savage programs many people depend on.”
By all appearances, Paul is trying to assuage these misgivings. He recently met with the leadership of the American Israel Political Action Committee and made his first trip to Israel. He has put his legislative staff to work on veterans’ issues and pointed out that reforming the Pentagon will help ensure U.S. military strength.
Most important, he has developed a good relationship with Minority Leader McConnell, his fellow Kentuckian. Paul’s former campaign manager is now leading McConnell’s 2014 reelection effort, and McConnell has allowed Paul a great deal of freedom to offer amendments of his choosing on the Senate floor. All of this makes it harder for people to depict Paul as a fringe figure in the Senate.
But for all his efforts, some Republicans — those who blame the Tea Party for the GOP’s failure to take back the Senate from Democrats in 2012 — would probably treat a Paul candidacy as an insurgency they need to suppress. They will insist that Paul won’t appeal to women, moderates, and people who will be suspicious of his Kentucky drawl.
But even those who are hostile to Paul should welcome his candidacy. If his star-making filibuster is any indication, his entry in the race will help make the GOP attractive to younger voters and people who are traditionally suspicious of both major parties. For a party that clearly had an “outreach” problem to those voters in 2008 and 2012, that can only be helpful.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.