Politics & Policy

Rand Paul Was Supposed to Dominate Iowa & Nevada. What Happened?

Paul at the Lincoln Dinnger in Des Moines in May. (Scott Olson/Getty)

A year ago, political insiders expected Rand Paul to dominate in Nevada and Iowa, the first two states to hold presidential nominating caucuses. Now, as campaign season ramps up in earnest and he continues to slide in national polls, Paul’s propensity to skip important GOP events has left Republican voters wondering whether he is willing to put in the work to seize his natural advantages in these two early states.

In 2012, supporters of Ron Paul’s presidential campaign took over the state Republican parties in both Iowa and Nevada. The elder Paul finished third in the 2012 Nevada caucuses with 19 percent of the vote, and third in the Iowa caucuses with 21 percent. That show of force appeared to give Rand Paul an edge in the two earliest caucus states as the 2016 campaign kicked off. The caucus format, which rewards candidates with enthusiastic and motivated supporters willing to sit through a sometimes hours-long meeting rather than merely checking a name on a ballot, was also thought to play to the younger Paul’s strengths.

Paul shares many of his father’s ideas, but his more traditionally Republican brand of libertarianism has made him a palatable option to some in the party’s establishment, something his dad never was. It could be a potent combination, if he’s able to draw in new voters without alienating the die-hard supporters who backed his dad. But in recent weeks, Paul has skipped a pair of important GOP events. And as reports of turmoil within his campaign continue to surface, Republicans in Iowa and Nevada are wondering if he is willing to put forth the effort needed to convert new voters to his cause.

Just this month, Paul has missed two major events in the earliest-voting caucus states. Last Saturday, the inaugural Basque Fry in Gardnerville, Nev., informally kicked off the Silver State’s caucus season with speeches by four GOP presidential contenders. Paul was in Haiti performing pro-bono eye surgery, and his campaign had no presence at the event, which gathered together 1,700 Republicans from across the state. Paul was not alone in that approach — of the candidates who did not appear at the event, only Marco Rubio had a campaign staffer present doling out bumper stickers and voter commitment cards. But it still looked like a missed opportunity for the Kentucky senator in a state that is predisposed to like him.

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That same Haiti trip will keep Paul from attending the Iowa State Fair, which wraps up its eleven-day run on Sunday. Instead, Kentucky representative Thomas Massie, a surrogate, will campaign for Paul throughout Iowa on Saturday. Massie, according to a schedule provided by the campaign, will not attend the fair.

“It’s like he’s fallen off the face of the earth,” says former Iowa GOP political director Craig Robinson, who writes The Iowa Republican blog. Robinson points to Paul’s absence from the fair, along with some of the cattle calls that have been held in the state. “People wonder, ‘How much does he really want this?’” he says.

Robinson says he’s been favorably impressed with some of the Paul campaign’s events. Just last month on his blog, he documented the impressive organization of an event the campaign held in Poweshiek County. “But,” he says, “with this big a field, it’s just, ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”

Robinson is not alone in noticing Paul’s absence from the fair.

“What’s his problem?” one Republican consultant aligned with another candidate asks indignantly.

Steve Grubbs, the well-respected operative who is Paul’s chief strategist in Iowa, says it’s just not true that he’s not paying enough attention to the Hawkeye State. According to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker, Paul has held 56 events in the state over 20 days, the seventh most events of any candidate running, Republican or Democrat. The perception of indifference, Grubbs says, comes from the particular events Paul is choosing to attend.

‘It’s like he’s fallen off the face of the earth. People wonder, “How much does he really want this?” ’

“If you’re talking about the multi-candidate events where everyone gets two lines in the newspaper the next day, that’s not necessarily our strategy,” Grubbs says. The Paul team, he says, prefers to send the candidate to individual events, many in far-flung counties where no one would hold a cattle call, and where organizers leave having signed up many new volunteers.

“Would I love to have him at the State Fair? Of course,” Grubbs says. But he adds that Paul’s work in Haiti was more important.

Even when he’s on the campaign trail, though, Paul’s curious scheduling goes beyond a few missed cattle calls. On Tuesday, he will kick off what his campaign is billing as a “Western Tour,” traveling to Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah. One place he won’t be stopping on that tour? Nevada, which holds the first-in-the-west caucuses.

Paul’s campaign says a multi-day campaign trip to Nevada is in the works. Still, Nevada Republicans describe Paul as under the radar and say they have witnessed little in the way of on-the-ground organizing.

“He doesn’t seem to be a strong presence at this point,” says former governor Robert List, who endorsed Scott Walker last week.

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Earlier this year, there was an effort to change Nevada’s nominating caucuses to a primary, largely designed to blunt Paul’s edge in the early state. The proposed change failed in June, a major victory for the Kentucky senator. But Nevada Republicans say that the perception that Nevada is fertile territory for Paul has weakened since then.

Paul’s campaign says that if it seems quiet in Nevada, it’s because they haven’t yet kicked off their efforts there.

“We have a very strong grassroots organization with many thousands of activists,” says Richard Bunce, a senior political advisor for Paul in Nevada. “They’re ready. They’re like the silent army, but once they turn on they’ll be really loud.”

Paul may start with a readymade corps of supporters, but he cannot win without converting voters who were unwilling to support his dad.

The campaign has yet to open an office in the state, though Bunce and Gor say one will open in the next several weeks, probably coinciding with Paul’s as-yet-unannounced  trip. Gor says there are “multiple” paid staff in Nevada, though he declines to provide specifics. “Nevada remains Rand Paul country, despite what others might say,” he adds.

Bunce says that once the campaign kicks off, Nevadans will start hearing quite a bit from the Paul campaign. He dismisses their lack of organizational presence at the Basque Fry, claiming that they didn’t feel the event, hosted by Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, would draw any of the “anti-establishment” voters who tend to back Paul.

“Grassroots people aren’t going pay $50 to eat . . . whatever it was,” Bunce says, laughing. (It was lamb testicles.)

That’s all well and good, but some Nevada Republicans are quick to point out that Ron Paul finished a distant third in the state last time around, behind Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Rand Paul may start with a readymade corps of supporters, but he cannot win without converting voters who were unwilling to support his dad. Eschewing events because the campaign deems the voters present to be too “establishment” is not the way to do that.

And it is still not fully clear how many of his father’s supporters will stay on board with Paul’s campaign. In Iowa, Grubbs says, that support is “absolutely” translating. And in Nevada, “We are excited to have the vast majority of his father’s supporters,” Gor claims. “With such a fractured GOP field we have a core constituency which is unmatched.”

#related#But Paul faces a historically deep field of rival candidates, several of whom can compete with him for anti-establishment and even libertarian voters. If he does not appear to be willing to work to win those voters, they could look elsewhere.

Right now, Paul is at around 3 or 4 percent in surveys of Iowa. He sits in the same range in the limited number of surveys that have been released in Nevada. Caucus states are notoriously difficult to poll, however, because no one really knows what the strength of a campaign’s organization is until that organization turns out voters on caucus day.

And some observers remain wary of counting Paul out.

“These guys could organize at Christmas time and you’d never know,” says one Nevada Republican. “He could resurrect.”

— Alexis Levinson is a senior political reporter for National Review.

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