U.S. Sen. Rand Paul appears to be addressing one of the big questions surrounding his potential run for president: Can he connect with the establishment donor base critical to winning the Republican nomination?
At an Atlanta fundraiser Monday, both old-guard Republicans and a new generation of conservative political givers raised $150,000 for Paul's Senate re-election committee and gave credence to the argument that establishment Republican fundraisers are looking closely at Paul's presidential prospects.
The outlines of what a Paul for President finance committee might look like met with Kentucky's junior senator. Among the 35 investors in attendance was Jack Oliver, who ran George W. Bush's fundraising operations in 2000 and 2004.
Oliver, who told the Herald-Leader he is not committing to a candidate until former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush makes a decision about running for president, said Paul has generated a lot of buzz with donors, especially younger ones.
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"He continues to be a very important part of the conversation about the future of the Republican Party," Oliver said.
At the center of Paul's Monday fundraiser and the senator's hopes for a presidential-level fundraising apparatus stands Kentuckian Nate Morris, who at age 33 represents the bridge between establishment Republicans and a new generation of millennial Republicans.
Despite his youth, Morris sports an establishment résumé, including internships and campaign work for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ("Everybody knows Nate," McConnell said in a 2004 interview.) and former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup of Louisville. He has a national Rolodex from his time as a "Bush maverick" — someone who collected $50,000 for Bush from individual donors — in his early 20s and friendships with the two men who hope to lead the next generation of Republicans in Kentucky: Paul and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
"Nate is the real deal," Comer said Monday. "He can do anything he wants in Kentucky politics."
Morris already has been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial running mate for Comer in 2015.
A Lexington native who still calls the city home, Morris traveled with Paul to Israel about a year ago, and he is expected to take on an advisory role in fundraising, policy and strategy whether Paul sets his sights on the White House or just focuses on winning re-election to the Senate.
"He's somebody that I call a great friend and somebody I believe in," Morris told the Herald-Leader over the weekend. "Whatever Rand decides to do, I'm behind him. There's no question I think he'd make a great president, but we're going to support him in whatever he chooses to do in the future."
Morris was the lead organizer of Monday's fundraiser, which he described as "just scratching the surface in our support and help for Rand."
More than a friendship, Morris and Paul also share a vision about the role they believe the private sector can play in solving the nation's woes, a vision folks shouldn't be surprised to hear in Paul's stump speech when he mentions Rubicon Global, the company Morris co-founded and leads.
Rubicon Global boasts on its website that it is "North America's leading provider of sustainable waste and recycling services." It is organized as a "B Corp," or Benefit Corporation, which Morris says "allows markets to drive social change."
B Corporations are for-profit companies that consider societal and environmental impacts in their decisions and, as such, are responsible to shareholders for meeting declared goals instead of traditional profit targets.
Morris believes that Rubicon and other B Corporations will become more prominent as profit-minded but socially conscious millennials gain louder voices in the entrepreneurial and business communities.
In other words, Morris represents the age demographic and free-market vision that Paul has shown repeatedly he appreciates and covets. Paul is going all-in on Rubicon and B Corporations, joining Morris, Comer and state Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, as they push to allow companies to register as B Corporations in Kentucky.
Thayer, Comer and Morris are expected to testify in favor of Senate Bill 9 as soon as next week in the Senate State and Local Government Committee. The bill would create a B Corporation designation, allowing company officials more flexibility in how they do business. For example, a company would be allowed to buy a product locally even though shareholders might make more profit if the same product was bought abroad.
Rubicon has gone all-in on Paul as well.
Monday's fundraiser was timed around Rubicon's investor conference and held at the Atlanta home of Lane Moore, executive chairman of Rubicon. Contributors included Blakely Page, who is close with Koch Industries co-owner David Koch; Peter Kellner, founder and managing partner of the investment firm Richmond Global; former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt; and Oliver, all of whom serve on Rubicon's advisory board along with former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"I think a lot of the folks there ... are really looking at him seriously as a candidate for president," said Blunt, who delivered the prayer at the luncheon. "Some of them will probably keep their options open, but they see him as a serious contender."
Paul still has considerable work to do to win over the big donors who are watching how the 2016 field shapes up. But others present Monday, including Louisville real estate magnate Rory McMahan, make up the Kentucky backbone of what could be Paul's finance committee.
"What attracts us to Rand is his belief in what real liberty is and what made America great and his drive to peel back the curtain from what the NSA (National Security Agency) is doing and giving people the ability to earn what they make instead of having it taxed from them," McMahan said.
McMahan, a newcomer to political giving, said he hopes Paul will pull the trigger on a presidential run, noting a touch of state pride in having a Kentuckian in the conversation.
"It's not every day that someone from Kentucky has a chance to be running in the presidential race," McMahan said. "It's amazing what kind of spotlight the world is showing on him right now. And it's a unique opportunity for a Kentuckian to grab the reins and try to make a run."