Politics & Policy

Rand Paul’s Biggest Problem: Ted Cruz

(File photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Cedar Rapids, Iowa — If Rand Paul hoped to resurrect and reinvigorate his White House campaign, he couldn’t have picked a better place.

In a Saturday afternoon forum here sponsored by FreedomWorks, the libertarian organization that helped fuel support for his father’s presidential runs, Paul was in his element. Wearing jeans and no jacket, the senator roamed the stage and spoke with an ease and effectiveness often missing from his campaign, reveling in an audience of true believers that interrupted him by hoisting his campaign signs and chanting “President Paul! President Paul! President Paul!” It was a reminder of the libertarian movement’s influence here in the first nominating state, and of the expectation that Paul would monopolize its support.

There was just one problem: He was shown up by Ted Cruz.

Cruz has been poaching Paul’s libertarian supporters since last January, when the Texas senator touched down in Iowa for a forum organized by Representative Steve King. The first thing Cruz did on that trip — before visiting with King or any of the state’s evangelical leaders — was stop at the Holiday Inn by the airport for a private roundtable discussion with Iowa’s “liberty” leaders. In the eleven months since, Cruz has made significant inroads with this constituency — the one Ron Paul created, and Rand Paul had counted on as the backbone of his campaign.

It’s an effort even longer in the making for Cruz. Over the last two years, the fiery Texan has followed Paul’s political lead on a number of key votes — from the 2013 budget showdown to the NSA-reforming USA Freedom Act and the National Defense Authorization Act earlier this year — in an effort to win over his libertarian fans. As the broader GOP electorate has soured on Paul-style non-interventionism over the same period, Cruz has charted a “third way” on foreign policy, positioning himself in between Paul and the more traditionally hawkish Marco Rubio in an effort to court both camps’ voters. That’s hurt Paul, whose libertarian base of support was never the largest segment of the primary electorate to begin with.

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

The competition was on clear display Saturday as 1500 Iowans descended on an arena here in Iowa’s first congressional district. The district is in the northeastern part of the state, the stronghold for Ron Paul in 2012, and it’s now represented by libertarian Representative Rod Blum. Though the event featured speeches from five presidential candidates, it shaped up as a Paul-Cruz showdown: They were the first two speakers on the schedule, and their supporters arrived early to stake out positions in the arena to hang campaign paraphernalia.

The crowd erupted when conservative talk-radio host Andrew Wilkow, the event’s emcee, took the stage and announced that Paul would lead off the speaking schedule. But when he named Cruz next, the applause was significantly louder — and irked Paul supporters tried to drown out Cruz’s fans with chants of “President Paul!”

That dynamic repeated itself during the candidates’ performances. Paul was given a raucous welcome, but it could not compete with the thunderous applause greeting Cruz. And throughout his 30-minute presentation, the Texas senator seemed to one-up his colleague at every turn. Paul won booming applause and a scattered standing ovation for promising, as his father famously did, to audit the Federal Reserve; a short while later, Cruz brought the entire arena to its feet by pledging to abolish five federal agencies — the IRS and the departments of Education, Commerce, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. (He fed the deafening cheers by then calling for a balanced-budget amendment, term limits, and entitlement reform.)

#share#The event showcased, in miniature, why Paul has struggled to reconstruct his father’s base in Iowa — and therefore has struggled to remain viable in the run-up to the state’s Feb. 1 caucuses. Ron Paul had no opposition for the votes of libertarian-leaning Republicans in 2012, and wound up winning 21 percent of the overall caucus vote. His son, however, facing a field twice as large — and direct competition from Cruz — has been mired in the single digits for five months. He currently registers at 3 percent support in Real Clear Politics’s polling average, and hasn’t earned more than 6 percent in any poll since July.

Paul dismissed the threat from Cruz in a meeting with reporters before his speech here, saying that nine of the ten state central committee members who supported his father are backing him in 2016. “We still think the vast majority of the liberty vote is coming to us,” he said.

But unaffiliated Republicans around the state say otherwise. The emerging consensus is that while Paul still probably has the support of most liberty-minded voters, Cruz has peeled away enough of them — from a pool that wasn’t very large in the first place — to make Paul a non-factor in the race.

Even Blum, the freshman libertarian lawmaker who says his campaign was inspired by Paul’s father — and who employs some former Ron Paul staffers on his campaign team — says he’s uncommitted to any candidate because of the many options in front of him.

‘If that liberty group had to vote, Rand Paul would probably win — but I would think Ted Cruz would do very well.’

“This is a natural constituency first and foremost for Rand Paul, but also for Ted Cruz,” Blum says backstage at his event, nodding to the audience. “If that liberty group had to vote, Rand Paul would probably win — but I would think Ted Cruz would do very well.”

In a nod to Cruz’s strategy of appealing to different segments of the primary electorate to build a winning coalition, Blum adds, “Each one of these presidential candidates has their niche. Rand Paul’s is college students, liberty-minded people. I always thought the candidate that can appeal to other niches would be the toughest. So it makes sense that Cruz, who appeals to evangelicals, is also trying to appeal to this group.”

#related#Certainly, Paul’s support has not collapsed completely. Dozens of his fans, most of them college-aged, carried his campaign signs into the arena and shouted his name from the cheap seats when Cruz was announced. But Paul was never going to win Iowa, or the GOP nomination, unless he could grow his father’s base of support, which hasn’t happened. Instead he finds himself bleeding family loyalists to Cruz, and struggling to stay relevant because of it.

In the audience Saturday were Don and Shawna Katterhenry, a married couple in their mid-40s from Manly, Iowa. Both Katterhenrys are self-identified libertarians who supported Ron Paul in 2012, and Shawna says she’ll caucus for his son on Feb. 1. But over his wife’s objections, Don says he’s leaning toward Cruz.

“I think there’s almost a burnout with the Pauls,” Don, a truck driver, says of Iowa’s liberty voters. “We keep trying to get this done with them, and people feel like they’re beating their heads against the wall. So they’re looking for someone who has those same values, who they like just as much, but who can actually win.”

— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.

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