Politics & Policy

Rand Paul Looks to Tea Party As He Prepares For War With Jeb and Hillary

Rand Paul announces his campaign in Louisville, Ky. (Luke Sharrett/Getty)

Louisville, Ky. — Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) claimed the mantle of the political outsider in a presidential campaign announcement that sets up an easy line of attack on Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton while advancing his efforts to court independents and disillusioned Democrats.

“We’ve come to take our country back from the special interests that use Washington as their personal piggy bank — the special interests that are more concerned with their personal welfare than the general welfare,” Paul told a rowdy crowd at the Galt House Hotel. “Big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration and is now tripling under Barack Obama’s watch. President Obama is on course to add more debt than all the previous presidents in history — combined.” 

RELATED: Rand Paul Is Running. Now the Establishment Takes the Gloves Off

Paul’s offering of fiscally-responsible populism echoes some of the notes sounded by President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) during their successful campaigns, but without the big government programs they support. His wife, Kelley, and other surrogates prefaced this message with stories of the eye doctor’s charity work, putting a new spin on what it means to be a compassionate conservative. Paul also confronted his foreign policy critics by declaring war on radical Islam while defending the idea of negotiating with Iran. It was an announcement that makes for an easy transition to the general election, but he’s going to have to win a series of fights to emerge from a crowded conservative field with the nomination.

Paul’s team warmed up the standing-room only audience, which had packed the ballroom despite a rainy day, with remarks from a series of surrogates. His wife, Kelley, entertained the crowd with her mix of praise for Paul and skepticism about political life.

“I think my first words were, ‘how could you do this to me,’” she recalled, to laughter, of their conversation when he first broached the subject of running for Senate.

The announcement event also featured former Representative J.C. Watts (R., Okla.), Hispanic state Senator Ralph Alverado — “It’s time for a compassionate leader in the White House,” Alverado said — a local college student who has interned in Paul’s Senate office, and an African American pastor who emphasized that Paul’s support for inner-city kids long predates his political career or need for support among minority communities.

Paul was clearly sending a message about the diverse coalition that he hopes will carry him to the White House, but he’ll have to make it past several formidable GOP primary opponents.

“Ted Cruz is my guy,” Tom Summers, an activist from the Fort Knox area who was volunteering for Paul at the announcement today, tells National Review. So why is he volunteering for Paul?  “I help him out, too; I like him; he’s a good conservative,” he says. “My ideal thing would be for both of them to run on the same ticket, but that’s not going to happen.”

“I’m supporting Rand, but, you know, I’m willing to see as they all get in,” adds Asa Swan, a history professor at a local Christian college. “I love that we have so many strong A-list candidates. I really do think it says that we’re the party of ideas.”

RELATED: Yes Rand Can

Cruz announced his candidacy at Liberty University two weeks ago. Paul’s effort to court establishment supporters, such as his endorsement of now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) during his primary, has given rise to speculation that the second presidential candidate to join the field would struggle to hold his libertarian base as he worked to expand his coalition. Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin — the former Tea party Senate hopeful who suffered the most from Paul’s early backing of McConnell –  attended the campaign kickoff, saying that he was happy to be invited and held no grudge against Paul, in part because the junior senator endorsed McConnell “long before” he had gotten into the race.

#related#​“They’ll have my prayers and my encouragement and I’m excited for what this is going to mean for the political landscape in America,” Bevin tells NR after the speech, while standing on the edge of a crowd listening to Paul’s interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. That’s not an endorsement, though. “I want to see who is in the race. I think it’s crazy — people who pick candidates before they even know who the candidates are, I think it’s sometimes a little premature. We see a lot of that in politics,” he adds, in an apparent allusion to Paul’s early support for McConnell.

Neither that breach or any other policy moves Paul has made will shake his libertarian base, though, according to Summers who was wearing a t-shirt in support of Bevin. “There’s a few strays here and there who will hold that against him, but overall, I don’t think he’s going to lose his base, not at all,” he says. 

That could allow Paul to introduce a dynamic into the 2016 presidential race that was absent in the 2012 election cycle, when Mitt Romney was the only candidate who had a floor of support that sustained him through a lengthy path to the nomination. Jeb Bush will have the money to compete deep into the primary season, but Paul might have the organization to keep pace. 

That was the theory of Ron Paul’s campaign, though, and he lost even in caucus states where he was expected to do well. To succeed where his father failed, Paul needs to solidify his support among the Tea Party voters that Cruz has claimed as his core supporters.

“Those that identify as Tea Party Republicans, the polling data I’m looking at, they’re still very much up in the air about who they’re going to support for president,” says one GOP operative. “Tea Party folks are interested in [Wisconsin’s Republican governor] Scott Walker, they’re interested in Rand Paul, they’re interested in Ted Cruz, they’re very interested in Marco Rubio, especially if he can sort of address the immigration issue in a coherent way, from the outset.”

Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, drew similar conclusions following a survey released last week. 

“Cruz has really caught fire with voters identifying themselves as ‘very conservative’ since his announcement,” PPP found, noting that his surge came at Walker’s expense. “Besides Cruz the other candidate with momentum over the last month is Rand Paul. His support has increased from 4 percent to 10 percent . . . One other thing to keep an eye on within these numbers — Marco Rubio has the highest favorability of any of the Republicans hopefuls we tested, with 55 percent of GOP primary voters giving him good marks.”

Cruz is appealing to religious conservatives while emphasizing his opposition to Obamacare and amnesty. Paul avoided those issues in his announcement speech, focusing instead on restraining the power of the federal government. 

“I see an America strong enough to deter foreign aggression, yet wise enough to avoid unnecessary intervention,” he said. “I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally, and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed! I see an America with a restrained IRS that cannot target and harass American citizens for their political or religious beliefs.” 

That’s the kind of message that has Paul, according to PPP, ”do[ing] better than anyone else on his side with independents, leading Clinton by 14 points at 47/33.” He trails her by four points overall, in the survey, because he draws just 77 percent of Republican voters in a hypothetical general election matchup.

Those numbers tend to undermine the Paul team’s suggestion that his foreign policy positions have broad-based support among Republicans. ”I don’t know what the percentage is — 15–20 percent of the Republican party wants to run headlong into another ground war, and that’s what they really want? — Rand’s not going to be their guy, but we’ll be happy with the 85 percent,” Jesse Benton, who is running Paul’s super PAC, told NR Monday.

Paul has been attacked by other Republicans because of his foreign policy views, but he confronted those critiques by declaring war on radical Islam before threading the needle between embracing negotiations with Iran and criticizing President Obama.

“The enemy is radical Islam and not only will I name the enemy, I will do what ever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind!” he said, before defending his support for the Iran negotiations, which have produced the outlines of a deal that has strong opposition from conservatives.

“I believe in applying Ronald Reagan’s approach to foreign policy to the Iran issue,” he continued. “Successful negotiations with untrustworthy adversaries are only achieved from a position of strength . . . The difference between President Obama and myself — he seems to think you can negotiate from a position of weakness. Yet, everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad, that trust but verify is required in any negotiation but that our goal always should be and always is peace, not war.”

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