Iowa Invite Gives Rand Paul a Leg Up on 2016

Iowa Invite Gives Rand Paul a Leg Up on 2016

By Scott Conroy - March 20, 2013

As he gears up for a potential 2016 presidential campaign that is looking more likely with each passing week, it has become apparent that Rand Paul need not worry about two key factors that handicapped his father’s White House runs.

First, the Kentucky senator is not going to suffer from a lack of media attention -- a perceived slight that dedicated supporters of former Rep. Ron Paul often complained about during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. After his 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA elevated him to the realm of conservative folk hero, Rand Paul delivered one of the best-received speeches at CPAC last weekend, and he has continued to generate headlines since then.

On Tuesday, his closely watched address on illegal immigration may have raised more questions than it answered about whether he supports a “pathway to citizenship,” but it left no doubt about his ability to shape the discourse on the major issues of the day. Thus, as the 2016 hype machine kicks into a higher gear in the coming months and years, it’s clear that the media will not go to sleep on Rand Paul.

But another crucial campaign advantage over his father may be even more valuable than additional air time. While Ron Paul’s early support came almost entirely from outside of the Republican Party machinery, Rand Paul already enjoys institutional GOP support in Washington and -- perhaps more valuably -- within the ranks of the Iowa GOP.

Not coy about his presidential ambitions, the first-term lawmaker will aim to build on his recent momentum when he delivers the headlining speech at the Iowa Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Dinner in May.

It won’t be Paul’s first trip to the nation’s first voting state, which appears fated to become his home away from home over the next several years. Before the 2012 GOP caucuses, he campaigned there alongside his father and returned to the state in May to deliver a keynote speech at an event hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, an influential socially conservative group.

Paul, of course, is not the only potential White House hopeful eager to test the waters in the Hawkeye State. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio waited less than two weeks after Election Day before traveling to Altoona for a “wink-wink” celebration of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s birthday. And Rick Santorum, who is beginning to gear up a possible second presidential run of his own, is slated to return next month to the state that rewarded him with a surprise come-from-behind victory in the 2012 caucuses.

But Paul’s ability to snag the Iowa GOP’s marquee invitation indicates the leg up he enjoys over prospective opponents. The recently re-elected chairman of the state party, A.J. Spiker, and co-chairman David Fischer were key figures in Ron Paul’s 2012 Iowa campaign and are ideologically aligned with his libertarian-leaning son.

In an interview with RCP on Tuesday, Spiker deflected questions about whether the Iowa Republican Party -- which has long taken a neutral stance in contested caucuses -- is showing its cards with the invitation to Paul.

“We had quite a bit of excitement, as we saw nationwide, with the 13-hour filibuster,” Spiker said. “And once we saw how excited everyone was about that, we decided to extend an invitation to Sen. Paul’s office, and he accepted, and we’re thrilled to have him coming.”

Spiker noted that his own two-year term as state party chairman ends in early 2015, a year before the next presidential caucuses. He declined, however, to rule out running for another term, adding that he likely would make that determination after the 2014 midterms.

Spiker said that the Iowa GOP has provided a platform for an array of prominent Republicans.

“Sen. Paul wasn’t our first speaker this year,” he said. “We had Mike Huckabee here last month, and we’re going to continue to bring in people who Iowa Republicans want to hear from. Sen. Paul is obviously on that list.”

But the party’s decision to host Paul as its first major pre-2016 headliner rankled some state Republicans, who saw the move as a clear case of preferential treatment.

“I wonder whom outside of Ron or Rand Paul they actually know to invite to a dinner,” Republican operative David Kochel, who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 Iowa campaign, said of the leadership. “Sen. Paul is a good get, and he's hot right now. I'm just wondering what they do for the fall event. Maybe invite Ron back again? And what about next spring and the spring after that? How many Pauls can speak?”

Kochel said that the move confirmed perceptions that the Iowa GOP had become a “one-trick pony gang,” and that he expected the state party leadership to provide a significant boost to the senator’s early presidential maneuverings.

“Unfortunately, they've struggled to go mainstream, and they don't have much support in the donor community,” Kochel asserted. “Maybe Sen. Paul helps open a few doors.”

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King -- a likely Republican front-runner to replace the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin -- will round out the undercard for May’s Lincoln Dinner, heightening the visibility of Paul’s appearance.

Shane Vander Hart, editor-in-chief and founder of the Iowa-based Christian conservative news and commentary site Caffeinated Thoughts, noted that Paul’s support among Republicans in the state already extended beyond the network that his father had constructed.

“He has a great base of grassroots activists to build on, so I believe he will have an advantage coming into Iowa,” Vander Hart said. “I believe he has the ability to build a bridge with social conservatives that his dad could not quite accomplish in 2008 or 2012.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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