Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky will be the first potential 2016 contender to touch base in all three of the states hosting the earliest nominating contests, revealing raw electoral ambitions to surpass his father’s standing as a leader of the tea-party movement.
Paul already visited South Carolina in January, when he addressed a group of Republican business leaders, and he’s planning to return this summer to headline a state GOP event. He’s also scheduled to deliver keynote speeches at the annual dinners hosted by the state Republican Parties in Iowa and New Hampshire on May 10 and May 20. While in New Hampshire, he and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus are planning to hold a roundtable meeting with tea-party activists.
The first-term Republican senator’s pace exceeds those of any of his possible rivals at this early stage. His father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, cultivated a loyal following in the early primary states but never scored the first-place finish that could have made him a viable candidate. The libertarian ex-lawmaker shied from the conventional political circuit that is leading Sen. Paul to the joint appearance with the party chairman, an address at the Reagan Library on May 31, and speeches to large Hispanic and African-American audiences.
“He’s taking his dad’s network and building on top of that,” said GOP strategist Jesse Benton, who helped Paul get elected in the tea party wave of 2010. “Early investments in time and attention to the activists and grassroots leaders and other folks crucial to winning early primaries are going to pay big dividends.”
Paul’s early outreach is key, considering that the potential 2016 field includes Republicans with higher national profiles, stronger connections to big donors and less baggage from out-of-the-mainstream policy positions. Among them: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida—the first possible contender to visit Iowa in mid-November—Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey. The second tier includes former candidate and Sen. Rick Santorum, who is addressing the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Iowa on April 15; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is slated to headline a Republican Party dinner in South Carolina on May 3; and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who will deliver the keynote at the Polk County Republican Party dinner on May 23.
“If you’re running for president, [Paul’s] schedule is exactly the kind you would want to keep,” said Iowa-based Republican consultant Dave Kochel, who steered Mitt Romney to victory in the 2012 caucuses. “Senator Paul has an existing infrastructure from his father, so it makes sense to do some care and feeding of the organizations already in place. The question is, how much can he grow outside the base of committed tea-party activists and usual Ron Paul suspects?”
Sen. Paul’s presumed inheritance of his father’s grassroots network is “a double-edged sword," Kochel added. “You couldn’t find anybody who thought Ron Paul was a viable presidential candidate in terms of winning the nomination, so [the younger Paul] has to break that perception sooner rather than later.”
Interviews with Ron Paul supporters in the three early-voting states found them inclined to support his son, and they noted his willingness to cooperate more with the Republican establishment. Some tea-party activists bristled when the younger Paul endorsed Romney and spoke at his nominating convention and, more recently, when he threw his support behind Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“It’s a delicate balancing act for Rand, and quite frankly there’s a split in the liberty movement right now between those who revere his father and those who are a bit disappointed at what they see as his son compromising or selling out,” said Tom Davis, a state senator in South Carolina and the first elected official in the state to endorse Ron Paul in 2012. “I don’t agree. I think you have to play the game, build alliances, and build relationships with senior members of your party.”
In a clear sign he is looking for a broader audience, Paul recently endorsed legalizing the millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He is slated to visit the historically black Howard University on April 10.
“These are not places that Republicans go often,” said Paul's chief of staff, Doug Stafford. “If you want to be a national leader, you have to be out there.”
Two recent polls show the 2016 field to be wide open. A Quinnipiac University survey found Paul receiving 15 percent of the Republican vote, trailing Rubio and Ryan. A new McClatchy-Marist poll showed Christie running the strongest against Democrats former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.