Rand Paul The GOP Frontrunner?

Calling anyone a front-runner in a race where we're still two years away from anyone casting votes is silly. Nonetheless, Rand Paul is an interesting guy to watch for those wondering if the GOP has actually changed.

Rand Paul CPAC 2014 Two

Nati0nal Journal’s  Josh Kraushaar argues that the Junior Senator from Kentucky is the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2016:

Republican strategists like to say the party’s next nominee needs to hail from the GOP’s gubernatorial ranks. It’s a response to how unpopular Washington is—particularly the party’s congressional wing—and a reflection of the party’s strength in holding a majority of governorships. But another reason for the gubernatorial focus is to sidestep the one formidable candidate that gives the establishment heartburn: Sen. Rand Paul.

Make no mistake: The Kentuckian scares the living daylights out of many Republicans looking for an electable nominee capable of challenging Hillary Clinton. At the same time, he’s working overtime to broaden the party’s image outside its traditional avenues of support. The 2016 Republican nominating fight will go a long way toward determining whether Paul is the modern version of Barry Goldwater or at the leading edge of a new, more libertarian brand of Republicanism.

“That’s the big challenge—is America ready? I think that Rand and his small-L libertarian Republicanism can break through,” said Paul’s longtime adviser Jesse Benton. “He’s a fundamentally better messenger than Barry Goldwater—[Goldwater’s 1964 campaign slogan] ‘In your heart you know he’s right’ is not very compelling. Rand is a wonderful communicator, and I think a message of individual liberty can build wide support.”

As I’ve noted before, Paul is not your typical Republican in many respects, and indeed differentiates himself significantly from fellow “Tea Party” Senators such as Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz when it comes to issues like foreign policy, which may well be his biggest vulnerability should he run for the Republican nomination. Even before the recent events in Ukraine, during which Paul has been far more circumspect in his criticism of the Obama Administration and bellicosity toward Russia than other Republicans in Congress have, Paul was becoming a target of many prominent pundits on the right who are identified with what can fairly be called traditional Republican/conservative foreign policy positions. Those people have ranged from The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, to former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, to New York Congressman Peter King, who has been mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate himself. Assuming Paul continues to gain prominence in the media, and does indeed run for President one can expect these criticisms of Paul’s foreign policy views to ramp up and to begin coming from those who might be running against him, such as Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, or Ted Cruz.

Despite this and other factors that could pose a problem if he runs, such as past statements regarding civil rights and his association with some of the same shady characters that his father has associated with, Kraushaar argues that Paul is moving in a direction that makes him the front-runner in a race that hasn’t really even started yet:

At the same time, Paul has been doing more than almost any other Republican to expand the party’s appeal to nontraditional GOP voters—the type of activity that’s imperative for future success. He spoke at Howard University and historically black Simmons College in Kentucky (twice) as part of an outreach effort toward African-Americans. His Jack Kemp-like pitch for “economic freedom zones” has even drawn the interest of the NAACP, which invited him to speak. He’s been leading the call for reforming drug sentencing, an issue that’s won support from many young voters and minorities who disproportionately bear the burden of current zero-tolerance policy. This week, at a Missouri Republican Party banquet, he said the party needs “a more diverse party—with tattoos and without tattoos.”

Meanwhile, the politics of the 2016 Republican nomination look increasingly favorable to Paul. He is one of the top fundraisers in the field, has a ready-made base of support from his father’s presidential networks, and has proven his savvy political instincts with a made-for-TV drone filibuster and NSA lawsuit. The newly compressed Republican presidential calendar should benefit a Paul candidacy, since he’s got the grassroots support to play in the small states and the money to fight forward in the big media-market states that follow.

Paul’s mutually beneficial alliance with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces reelection this year, is a prime example of his political foresight. McConnell has helped him build chits with the establishment, including donors skeptical of his national viability. McConnell, meanwhile, has gotten tea-party validation to get him through a contested primary against businessman Matt Bevin. He’s also benefited from Paul’s swipes at former President Clinton, who is emerging as an important surrogate for McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell, if he survives the general election, could become the next majority leader. But Paul, in taming the establishment skepticism toward him, could end up with the bigger prize.

“He is the Republican front-runner,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings, who served as deputy political director in the George W. Bush administration and is now running a pro-McConnell super PAC in Kentucky. “The political instinct of when to do things is not something you teach—you either have it or you don’t. He’s got a knack for finding populist issues showing why the government is stupid, and people like it.”

These are all good points, and a Rand Paul run for the White House would certainly be an interesting thing to watch, not the least because of the fact that it would be interesting to see how GOP voters handle someone who dares to question Republican orthodoxy. At the same time, though, calling Paul the “front-runner” at this point in time strikes me as being pretty silly for several reasons.

First of all, it’s worth noting that Rand Paul wouldn’t be the first potential candidate that some analyst somewhere has claimed to annoint a Republican front-runner for 2016. In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 election, Florida Senator Marco Rubio was placed at the top of nearly everyone’s list both because he comes from a state that the GOP absolutely has to win if it’s going to win a Presidential election and because of his warnings to the GOP regarding it’s problems with Latino voters, most of which are related to the party’s position on immigration. When Rubio seemingly lost favor with the GOP’s hardcore right wing base thanks to the fact that he actually tried to accomplish something in the Senate, attention shifted to other names like Ted Cruz.  In the lead up to the 2013 elections, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was anointed as the new front-runner. Now that he’s taken a dip in the polls thanks to a “Bridgegate” scandal that quickly seems to be amounting to much ado about nothing at least as far as Christie himself is concerned, it’s not at all surprising that attention is shifting to someone else, and Rand Paul is nicely situated at the moment to be the person who gets touted as the “front-runner.”

Second, before we place too much importance on any of these names, though, it’s worth noting that the fact that pundits have anointed someone as the “front-runner” for 2016 really doesn’t mean much of anything. At this point during the 2008 cycle, for example, Rudy Giuliani was seen as a front-runner for the Republican nomination. He ended up spending $50,000,000 on a campaign that barely made it past the first four primaries. In 2012, there were no less than five so-called “front-runners” during the period before people started actually voting ranging from Romney, to Mike Huckabee, to Rick Perry, to Herman Cain, to Newt Gingrich. The same thing will happen as we get closer to 2016. Rand Paul is getting a moment in the sun right now, but politics being what it is that is going to come to an end soon. Paul will stumble somewhere, or some other Republican will rise to prominence for one reason or another. That cycle will continue from now until voting actually starts in Iowa and New Hampshire in early 2016, just as it always has in every Presidential cycle for decades now. Therefore, declaring Paul, or anyone, a “front-runner” at this point is really kind of silly.

Finally, it’s worth noting that what we’re seeing here is really just another example of the “horse race” journalism that has come to characterize political reporting in this country. Rather than analyzing issues or uncovering real stories, political writers end up spending most of their time covering polls that are mere snapshots in time and latching on to whatever the “flavor of the month” happens to be. As a blogger who writes primarily about politics I’ve been guilty of it myself, and the pressures to produce content that come with being a paid writer for sites like National Journal and Politico makes it inevitable that there’s a lot more time spent focused on day-to-day stories like this. I’d like to say that we’re going to see that change in the 2016 cycle, but the fact that we’ve got journalists anointing front-runners for little reason other than to get traffic hits seems to indicate that this is unlikely.

Notwithstanding all of that, I do agree that Rand Paul is proving himself to be a very skilled politician, far more skilled in fact than his father ever was given the fact that he seems to be far better at not saying things that make him sound, well, crazy. If he does run, he will be an interesting candidate to watch if only because his success, or failure, will be seen as an indication of just how much the Republican Party has actually changed since the George W. Bush years.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. grumpy realist says:

    Doug, I notice that right underneath your article is a link to an earlier article stating “Ted Cruz tops poll of 2016 contenders”

    Yeah, at this point it’s all armchair philosophizing by a bunch of wanna-be-pundits who are too lazy to get off their asses and do some actual reporting.

  2. Mark Ivey says:

    Rand is gonna get a good grifter profit this year..

  3. superdestroyer says:

    The easiest way to filter the Republican candidates for president is to ask which states will each of them win that were carried by Obama in 2012. Unless a candidate clearly demonstrates the ability to win “swing” states like Virginia and Ohio in the general election for president, then who cares what his poll numbers are.

    Paul has a trunk full of baggage that will cause him to falter along the campaign trail. He also has virtually none of the skill set that a conservative needs to be a good president. Paul has already failed the test of being able to manage his staff given their habit of plagiarism and incompetence. Does anyone really believe that Paul will be able to actually manage a full fledged campaign for president.

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    Paul is not an overt sociocon and certainly not a neocon so he might have a chance to pick up some youth votes. The reality is the Republican stable is pretty week.

  5. CSK says:

    Kraushaar doesn’t give a link or citation to his comment that McConnell has received Tea Party validation. As far as I know, the Tea Party hates McConnell’s guts, and the feeling is mutual.

    And the Tea Party doesn’t appear to like Paul very much either: He’s allied himself with McConnell, and, as one sage commented, he’s a “Godless RINO.”

  6. Mikey says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Paul is not an overt sociocon

    You just haven’t heard that he is. This, for example, is on his website:

    I am 100% pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being. It is the duty of our government to protect this life as a right guaranteed under the Constitution. For this reason, I introduced S. 583, the Life at Conception Act on March 14, 2013. This bill would extend the Constitutional protection of life to the unborn from the time of conception.

    In other words, he’d ban all abortion for any reason including rape or incest. It doesn’t get much more “sociocon” than that.

  7. stonetools says:

    One of the problems with achieving front runner status this early is that the media will immediately starting combing through Rand Paul’s record. I expect pretty soon we’ll find all kind of words and actions in his record that he will find hard to explain to a skeptical audience -so much so that I predict a fall from front-runner status in a month or two. And that’s to say nothing of his father’s even more dubious record.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    I’ll say this for Rand – he’s not as malevolent as Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Alan Keyes, Allen West, or Sarah Palin, and he’s not as lame as Rick Perry or Mike Huckabee.

    He’s definitely the leader at this to-early-to-tell stage.

  9. Todd says:

    If one has access to a legal betting market, I think plopping down $100 on Rand Paul to be the Republican nominee might not be a bad play at all. I’ve been saying for a while now that I think he will be the R nominee. That said, I really can’t imagine many scenarios where any Republican has a reasonable chance of actually winning the General Election in 2016 … especially if the economy continues to expand between now and then.

  10. SenyorDave says:

    Here was the Rand Paul budget proposal from 2012. It featured elimination of capital gains and dividends taxes. I personally think he might be the GOP nominee (all his proposals would devastate the social safety net, which is a huge plus for Republicans in the primary), but in the absence of very bad times, I think he loses badly. He doesn’t seem terribly bright, and he is on record as opposing the a key portion of the Civil Rights Act:

    What did Paul propose?

    A cut in the Social Security payments of 40 percent to all recipients.
    End the Medicare program as we know it in two years.
    Reduce defense spending by $100 billion below a level considered “devastating” by the Pentagon.
    Eliminate the Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Commerce Departments.
    Dramatically cut the Homeland Security Department.
    Cut programs for the poor in a radical fashion.
    Give tax cuts to the wealthy, lowering rates to 17 percent, and eliminate all taxes on capital gains and dividends.

  11. MarkedMan says:

    Paul may or may not be the Republican nominee, but whoever gets the eventual nod will start out with a huge negative – he will try to campaign entirely in negative mode. They won’t be publicly for something, but rather simply against whoever the Dem nominee is for and inevitably, against the Dem nominee as a person. As Senyor Dave points out above, the things that Repubs are for are simply anathema to a significant majority of voters and will therefore be avoided or sidestepped. Whether it is Paul or someone else, their success will be defined by the Dem nominee. If enough people want to vote against the Dem, then the Repub will be elected.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Calling anyone a front-runner in a race where we’re still two years away from anyone casting votes is silly.

    I don’t think that’s entirely true, Doug. Or, to be specific, it’s true in the case of the Republican race right now but not in the case of the Democratic one.

    Hillary Clinton’s having been anointed as Democratic nominee presumptive has multiple effects. It sucks the air out of the room. It makes it difficult for any other prospective candidate to get enough money, organizational talent, or media attention, all things that are in finite supply and time-critical. Indeed, any other candidate would have to set him or herself on fire and run down Pennsylvania Avenue to get a tenth of the media attention that Sec. Clinton gets with any public appearance.

  13. Robin Cohen says:

    The selection of Rand Paul is proof that the far right is completely out of touch with the American voter and with the real world.

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @al-Ameda: Any one of those would be a very good argument for safe and legal abortion.

  15. stonetools says:

    Heh, a little OT but relevant. Libertarians move into a small New Hampshire town and try to govern. The Results:

    How did Grafton come to this? About 15 years ago, a prominent Libertarian hatched the idea of moving Libertarians to New Hampshire, with the hope of having a big impact in a small state. They called it the Free State Project, and a handful of Free Staters settled in Grafton.
    O’Reilly was surprised by how quickly Free Staters started pushing their agenda.
    “Almost seems as if they walked in the door and started running for office and hold positions,” she says. “It’s not the typical way someone who’s a New Englander does things.”
    Free Staters say Grafton should withdraw from the school district, cut the $1 million budget by 30 percent over three years, and carve Grafton out as a “U.N.-free zone.”

    I predict Rand Paul will have as much success persauding Americans to accept his agenda as these libertarians are having in New Hampshire.

  16. Scott F. says:


    There’s the rub. It’s easy for Paul’s longtime adviser Jesse Benton to say “Rand is a wonderful communicator, and I think a message of individual liberty can build wide support.” The hard part comes with the specifics of what a government of “individual liberty” entails.

    To his credit, Paul has been willing to go on record with the specifics. IMO, this raises his esteem above all the others who talk about policies that favor the “responsible” without putting numbers that add up on the record. The problem for Rand is those specifics would skewer him in both the Republican primaries and the general election should he get that far. “Individual liberty” is a wonderful thing. What it means to Rand Paul is far too radical for the electorate.

  17. C. Clavin says:

    I went into the OTB archives to see who won the 2010 CPAC straw poll for 2012…it was Mike Pence. Not a good sign for Mr. Paul.
    I wonder if Romney or McCain ever won the CPAC Straw Poll? I don’t think so.
    Based on the reports out of the Convention Republicans still seem to have absolutely no policy ideas at all…except to keep complaining about Obama.
    I did find in the archive where Fat Rushbo said he was going to leave the country if Obamacare passed and was implemented. Anyone surprised that he doesn’t have the cojones to back up his threats?

  18. C. Clavin says:

    @Scott F.:

    The hard part comes with the specifics of what a government of “individual liberty” entails.

    It entails getting rid of everything that the Public likes.
    Libertarianism sounds terrific in the abstract. It withers and dies the very second that it is exposed to the real world.

  19. stonetools says:

    @C. Clavin:

    What Paul is doing is combining his libertarian message-which the rich and powerful love-with the so-con message-which the base loves.It’s just a more extreme version of the Republican playbook since Reagan. Time will tell whether it works.
    The big difference forom standard Reaganism is the anti-militarism-which may not hurt him since the public is so war weary.

  20. Lenoxus says:

    @Robin Cohen:

    The selection of Rand Paul is proof that the far right is completely out of touch with the American voter and with the real world.

    This sentence, of course, is conveniently reusable. Just swap out “Rand Paul” with the name of each new front-runner from now until the 2016 conventions. (At least, it’s a trick that worked last time.)

    Although that does raise an interesting tangential question: Which major politician of either party is the least out-of-touch with American voters? Who actually captures “what America wants”? I mean, I think the Democrats are quite a bit closer to that golden mean, but in part only because of how for the Republicans have gone.

  21. Robin Cohen says:

    @Lenoxus: That’s the problem with the far right, they keep repeating the same dumb platitudes that don’t appeal to most Americans. I don’t think a Conservative Republican can win the Presidency simply because their platform is inane and or harmful to most voters. Paul Ryan is a wealthy man. That is why he preaches austerity which he does not have to practice. Rand Paul, whose concept of government is more intrusive than minimal, grew up as the son of a doctor and probably never worried about money. Neither man
    is willing to speak to real issues that most voters care about. The Republican Right has a disproportionate amount of influence in our government because of financial backing received from the Kochs, Adelsons etc. Until there is a rational approach to governance shown by Republicans as a group, they cannot win the White House and, frankly, they should not win.

  22. john personna says:

    If 2016 repeats the pattern of “leader of the month,” this is just the beginning.

  23. Robin Cohen says:

    @john personna: That’s the trouble with all of their so-called candidates. They just don’t it that they haven’t a hope in hell with their agenda from Mars
    and they are incapable of change that will appeal to voters regardless of the year.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: I don’t know how anyone can claim to be a Libertarian and also be “pro-life”, especially when being “Pro-life” means commandeering someone else’s body.

    When Rand advocates equally for the right for individuals to kidnap other people off the sidewalk to borrow their body organs, then I’ll start to believe he’s actually “pro-life”. Oh, and he better get on the no-capital-punishment and no-war-whatsoever bandwagon as well.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @SenyorDave: Did the little idiot notice that by getting rid of the Commerce Department he just got rid of the US Patent and Trademark Office?

    I think a lot of companies would have something to say about that.

  26. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist: Indeed, the libertarian position would be to remove government from the decision altogether and leave it to the woman and whomever she chooses to bring in (significant other, physician, church leader, etc).

    It’s also incredibly philosophically inconsistent for a libertarian–someone who professes government be as small and local as possible–to propose an amendment to the U. S. Constitution that would bind all 50 states.

  27. wr says:

    @Mikey: ” Indeed, the libertarian position would be to remove government from the decision altogether and leave it to the woman and whomever she chooses to bring in (significant other, physician, church leader, etc).”

    I think the actual libertarian position — you know, the one held by libertarians, instead of the one their philosophy would call for — is to leave it to the fetus to decide. Because to libertarians the rights that matter most belong to white men, the rights that matter least are those that pertain to women, and the ones in the middle include those of little clumps of cells that might someday become white men.

  28. grumpy realist says:

    @wr: If I would be mischievous, I would also argue that it’s quite obvious that in a Libertarian society, a woman would have complete ownership of anything that she manufactured 99.999% by her own hard work. Therefore under libertarian ethics, it should be perfectly moral and just for a woman to put her own newborn to death.

    (shrugs) Well, if you don’t like where libertarian concepts of ownership lead you…..