Dr. Rand Paul has emerged as a contender in the Republican primary to replace Kentucky’s outgoing senator, Jim Bunning. In his first-ever run for public office, Paul has taken the lead in the polls and a slight lead in money — even though Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has all but endorsed Paul’s chief rival, Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Paul’s recent rise is due to support among both the base of his father (Texas House member and obstetrician Ron Paul) and the state’s fiscal conservative/libertarian set, which overlaps with the tea-party movement. This has caused concern among GOP regulars, who have spotlighted Paul’s shaky conservative record and fringe father.
Rand Paul grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas. His father served in the House from 1975 to 1984, and has done so continuously since his return to the Hill in 1997. He defected to the Libertarian party and ran as its presidential candidate in 1988. He gained some national fame during his 2008 quest for the Republican nomination, with a cult following from the libertarian and paleoconservative edge of the party.
Rand’s first political experience was at age 11, knocking on doors during his dad’s first campaign. “We rode around in our camper, which was decorated with an overweight Uncle Sam and Rx slogan: ‘Put Big Government on a Diet.’” In high school, Paul swam, played football, and began to take on his father’s intellectual interests. “I read all of Ayn Rand’s novels when I was 17,” he says, though surprisingly, he wasn’t named for the Russian-American novelist (his full first name is “Randal”).
He made his way from Texas to Kentucky via Baylor University, Duke Medical School, and an Atlanta internship in which he met his wife, Kelley. In 1993, they moved to Bowling Green, near Kelley’s hometown. Paul helped found Kentucky Taxpayers United, a now-dormant watchdog group, and the Southern Kentucky Lion’s Eye Clinic, where he and other ophthalmologists perform surgery pro bono. Rand signaled his candidacy in February 2009 and announced last August. The primary takes place May 18.
At 47, the short Rand Paul has a graying, curly top. “Rand Paul is relentless,” declares Frank St. Charles, friend and frequent defender in letters-to-the editor. “He’s personable, but he’s pretty unwavering. He stands by what he says.” Other Bowling Green residents have offered “cocky” and “arrogant,” especially since his rapid rise on his father’s name. They know less of Paul than one might expect. One leading Republican told me he’s only met Paul in passing. A long-time member of the local press said, “I wouldn’t know Rand Paul if I saw him.”
Statewide, however, Paul’s presence has become known. An early March Survey USA poll shows that Republican primary voters prefer Paul to establishment candidate Grayson, 42 to 27 percent. A more recent survey shows him up 12 points. His connection with conservative, libertarian, and business-oriented voters amid an anti-government spirit across the Commonwealth further cements his position as the frontrunner.
THE PERFECT STORM
For a first-time candidate, Paul discusses policy competently before informed crowds and appears comfortable on the stump. “This has been a challenge for Rand,” says campaign manager and former Jessamine County Republican chairman David Adams. At a Northern Kentucky Homebuilders Association meeting, dressed in tan corduroy pants and standard blue blazer, Paul addresses a friendly gathering of contractors, civil engineers, and small-business owners burdened by government regulation. He breaks the ice by telling them the Olympic Committee has taken the gold medal from downhill skier Lindsey Vonn and will give it to the president. “Nobody’s going downhill faster than Obama,” he quips. With one hand in his pocket and the other stretching atop the podium, Paul denounces card check and the EPA before fielding questions.
A fiery message against congressional Big Brother resonates before less formal audiences. “You tell me I must have a waiting period to buy a gun?” Paul asks though a megaphone at the recent opening of his second campaign office. “I tell them they need a waiting period before they pass legislation.” His lines are part and parcel of an us-vs.-them strategy that emphasizes pork-barrel spending, the deficit, and term limits.
Western Kentucky University political-science professor and Warren County GOP vice chairman Scott Lasley calls Rand Paul’s campaign “the perfect storm.” He credits Paul’s strategic decisions, especially his shrewd use of the national media, in which he has appeared on a split screen with his father. Paul’s candidacy was legitimized with a press conference at the state GOP’s Frankfort headquarters in the Mitch McConnell Building. Grayson far outpaces him with Kentucky endorsements, but Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, and Steve Forbes have endorsed Paul.
Ron Paul is in part responsible for his son’s rising star in name recognition, fundraising, and cult following. Most of the $2 million Rand has raised so far, much of it from out-of-state donors, came from his father’s patented “money bomb” technique, a simple one-day Internet fundraiser. Ron Paul’s name and image surface at his son’s events, and I’ve yet to find a Rand supporter that didn’t have some philosophical appreciation for Ron’s disgust with federal intrusion on citizens’ liberties.
The tea-party movement has also gravitated toward the younger Paul. “He’s found a way to very effectively communicate with conservatives who are angry,” says state Republican chairman Steve Robertson. “Supporters and Dr. Paul’s campaign infrastructure has worked more diligently to dovetail with tea party rallies.”
The word “concerned,” Paul claims, describes the movement and the crowds more accurately than “angered.” Attorney Duane Skavdahl, vice president of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, described a membership that overlaps with business leaders, civic clubs, and outdoorsmen rather than the angry lot from last summer’s town halls. “Trey Grayson has basically never mentioned us, or if so, he’s a latecomer to the party.” Skavdahl’s tea-party colleagues devour Paul’s platform and insurgency status. “I think that’s my number-one asset,” Paul says. “That I’ve never been in office.”
Grayson and his establishment supporters have capitalized on Paul’s weaknesses. They are using Ron against Rand, painting the son as an out-of-state kook who would embarrass the Commonwealth in the Senate. This causes concern for Kentucky’s mainstream conservatives now and in looking ahead to the general election in November.
Many conservatives reject Ron Paul’s celebrity, fringe positions, and irritation to the party over the years. He has advocated the legalization of drugs and blamed U.S. foreign policy for bringing about the 9/11 attacks. Some haven’t forgotten his 1988 run against Bush 41. The anti-Paul spirit among conservatives showed in the 2008 primary and more recently at the CPAC convention, at which Representative Paul won a straw vote with one-third of those polled, only to hear loud boos from the remaining two-thirds in attendance. Rand Paul is trapped between his father’s cachet and his baggage.
“He’s had to distance himself from some of his dad’s positions, on closing Gitmo, on drug use, and on the War on Terror,” says Professor Lasley. Still, Paul has criticized Washington Republicans, and party loyalists don’t appreciate it. At Fancy Farm, host of Kentucky’s annual political extravaganza, Paul pointed to the hypocrisy within the party after Mark Sanford’s Argentina tryst, and he frequently reminds crowds that a Republican built the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Breathitt County GOP chair and Grayson donor Mike Bryant has created the website “Too Kooky for Kentucky,” which portrays father and son in matching dunce caps to remind voters that Rand carries Ron’s political DNA. “He’s been tied to the hip of his father,” says Bryant, “It’s disingenuous for him to portray himself as a political newcomer and to run as a Republican.”
Grayson’s camp has recently opened its own cyber broadside, called “Rand Paul: Strange Ideas.” Introduced with television spots and now heavily promoted on radio, the website highlights Paul’s political gaffes and libertarian positions. An image on the site depicts a slightly spaced-looking Rand Paul in a psychedelic vortex reminiscent of one you’d see on a low-budget 1960s sci-fi show. Those who click beyond the “strange” image can read carefully spliced quotes, his dad’s record, and Rand’s nuanced reverence for the Tenth Amendment under headings like “Marijuana,” “Gay Marriage,” and “Abortion.” Paul’s refusal to commit to vote for Mitch McConnell as Senate leader if elected is billed as an “attack” on McConnell. Some headlines purport to characterize Rand Paul, but cite only Ron. As March Madness began, a Grayson spot reminded voters he attended Kentucky’s state law school, while he maligned Paul as Duke Blue Devil — easy vilification in the Bluegrass State.
Conservatives have a legitimate concern over Paul’s national-security credentials. He’s questioned Iran’s status as a potential nuclear threat and expressed worrisome views about how to handle captured terrorists. Some of his comments, whether off-the-cuff or not, have brought leading Washington national-security Republicans to his opponent’s side. Dick Cheney recently endorsed Grayson, calling him the “real conservative.” Paul has called for nixing the federal Energy and Education Departments to loud cheers; this is impressive to tea-party Jeffersonians, but won’t necessarily play well in a general election.
His record has intensified the split in the state — anti-Beltway fiscal conservative-libertarians against establishment figures desiring a robust international presence. Rand Paul has the passion on his side, but Kentucky Republicans who want to hold the Senate seat should give him a good, hard look before they vote in the primary on May 18.
– David Wolfford teaches government and politics in Cincinnati.