How Rand Paul's Outreach Could Pay Off in '16

How Rand Paul's Outreach Could Pay Off in '16
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When Rand Paul traveled to the University of California at Berkeley this week to talk about what he sees as the vast overreach of U.S. intelligence gathering, there was no confusion about his political aims. 

With the Republican Party facing widening demographic challenges, the Kentucky senator has been aggressively presenting his libertarian-leaning brand of politics as an opportunity to expand the GOP’s reach. 

Whether engaging with a skeptical audience at historically African-American Howard University last year or riffing about Domino’s Pizza in baggy blue jeans at an epicenter of American liberalism this week, Paul’s implicit message to non-traditional Republicans has been clear: I’m not like those other guys. 

“We need a different kind of party,” he said at Berkeley, adding that the GOP will either “evolve, adapt or die,” according to the New York Times.   

Now that Paul has become a consensus top-tier Republican contender ahead of his likely 2016 presidential bid, his efforts to court young people holding progressive social views has generated a debate among GOP strategists. 

To some, these efforts to emphasize his credentials as a different kind of Republican offer limited benefits and outsized risks in the coming primary fight.  

“This guy thinks that Edward Snowden is a patriot, that we shouldn’t be screwing around with Russia, and we should decriminalize pot,” a strategist who works for a likely 2016 rival told RealClearPolitics. “One thing that will get the hard-core evangelical types to unite with country club Republicans is opposition to all of those issues.” 

Recent party nominating fights offer evidence to back up this dim assessment that Paul’s strategy won’t do him any favors. 

In 2008, the freshman senator’s father, Ron Paul, served as a convenient punching bag for a candidate field dominated by national security hawks, led by John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. The elder Paul never became a serious threat to compete for the nomination that year.   

To a somewhat lesser extent, that dynamic carried over into his 2012 race. In a January debate that year in South Carolina, for example, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney jumped all over the Texas congressman for having questioned whether the American government had the authority to kill Osama Bin Laden.   

But a couple of factors leading into the 2016 election suggest that Rand Paul’s opponents won’t be as eager to challenge his national security views so vociferously and that attention-grabbing moves like his trip to Berkeley are grounded in sound political strategy.

First, he is a savvier politician than his father and typically calibrates his remarks to avoid raising the ire of a clear majority within the GOP. 2016 debate watchers can expect to hear Paul lambast the NSA’s domestic surveillance program and perhaps even question the “traitor” label often assigned to Edward Snowden, but they are unlikely to hear him question the almost universally praised killing of Osama Bin Laden, as his father did. 

Second, mountains of evidence indicate that rank-and-file Republican voters have shifted precipitously in recent years toward Paul’s noninterventionist foreign policy stance and are now much more skeptical of government programs that infringe upon liberties.  

In short, most GOP strategists agree, Rand Paul’s views on these matters are no longer outside the mainstream of Republican politics.  

“He is the default leader on privacy in the Republican Party, and I think there’s a big segment of even the conservative primary electorate who are against big government and the nanny state and are very appreciative of Sen. Paul’s comments,” said Vincent Harris, a veteran GOP digital strategist who counts Texas Sen. Ted Cruz among his current clients. “I think it’s a positive in a presidential primary.”  

Paul’s trips to college campuses aren’t merely efforts to woo young progressives who have soured on the Obama administration. At Berkeley, for instance, he was a guest of the College Republicans group there -- a core constituency that he hopes to mobilize in key primary and caucus states. In winning the presidential straw poll at CPAC earlier this month, Paul’s strength among the younger set of right-leaning activists -- many of whom offered praise for, rather than condemnation of, Edward Snowden -- was clear.  

In 2008, Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in part by mobilizing young liberals.  Paul hopes to replicate that feat in 2016, but with a twist: He aims to rally young conservatives who, though they don’t equal the number of Obama’s young primary voters six years ago, could have an enormous impact on a multi-candidate Republican race.

“The establishment is persona non grata to young conservatives,” Harris said. “I understand models that say the average Iowa caucus voter is a 60-year-old male, but this is going to be a long primary process, and it’s going to go into a lot of states where there’s a big constituency for Sen. Paul’s anti-government views on privacy.” 

And even among many traditional Iowa caucus-goers, Paul’s gambit to reshape the national security debate appears to be far from a deal-breaker.  

In the 2012 caucuses, Ron Paul finished in third place and just three percentage points behind the winner, Rick Santorum. That impressive showing for Paul came not just from turning out his hard-core libertarian devotees but also by emphasizing his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.  

According to exit polls, Ron Paul finished in second place behind Santorum among caucus-goers who described themselves as born-again or evangelical. 

While Rand Paul largely shares his father’s views on these issues, he raised alarms among some on the right with his comments last week that the Republican Party would have to “agree to disagree” on social issues in order to expand its reach.  

Much of the Paul family’s strongest support in the nation’s first voting state comes from Republicans who are fiscal libertarians but also hard-core social conservatives -- a unique dynamic that the likely contender will have to carefully navigate.  

“I think there’s a choice he’s going to have to make, and I don’t think he’s going to be able to survive straddling that fence being all things to all people,” Craig Robinson, editor-in-chief of the influential conservative online publication The Iowa Republican, said of Paul’s strategy. “[Social conservatives] are going to want a warrior on those issues, and that’s why guys like [Mike] Huckabee and Santorum find their way to the top. Their credentials and the language they use to talk about these issues is impeccable, and that’s why they win.” 

The juggling act of maintaining the support of young libertarians while also winning over deeply conservative, older Iowans will indeed be a challenge. But if Paul is able to thread that needle, the next state on the presidential calendar figures to be at least as hospitable to the message he has been trumpeting to non-traditional Republican voters.   

Not only is the GOP electorate in the “Live Free or Die” state generally well attuned to Paul’s views, but New Hampshire’s registered independents -- who traditionally make up about 40 percent of the primary electorate -- offer him an additional boon.   

Paul was the top choice among potential 2016 contenders in a poll of New Hampshire GOP activists conducted last weekend and he has been at the front of the pack in other early polling in the state. He is expected to be a big draw when he returns to New Hampshire in April for a “freedom summit” in Manchester, which is being sponsored by the libertarian-leaning groups Americans for Prosperity and Citizens United.

Cruz and Huckabee are also slated to speak at the event, but Paul’s presence is among the key reasons 700 tickets have already been sold, with 500 people on the waiting list to attend, according to AFP’s Corey Lewandowski. 

The extent to which Paul seeks to differentiate himself next month from the messages Huckabee and Cruz offer will say much about his confidence that the coalition he has been working to build can indeed propel him to victory there in two years. 

“At the end of the day, Rand Paul does not want to be the Republican nominee who lost the election -- I don’t think that’s what his goal is,” Lewandowski said. “I think his goal is to be the president of the United States.”

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

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