Politics & Government

Higher hopes fading fast, Paul doesn’t heed call of home

Rand Paul spoke during Republican presidential debate at Milwaukee Theatre on Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee.
Rand Paul spoke during Republican presidential debate at Milwaukee Theatre on Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee. AP

Memo from home to Sen. Rand Paul: Be careful what you wish for.

Back when Paul, the curly-haired libertarian darling with the snappy fashion sense, was still a hot presidential prospect, he hatched a plan to skirt a state law barring candidates from being on two ballots at once. If Kentucky Republicans staged a caucus – à la Iowa – to pick their presidential nominee, Paul could seek the party’s nomination for the White House and re-election to the Senate, too.

“It doesn’t really pass the smell test, running for two offices at once,” said Jim Skaggs, a longtime Republican official and neighbor of Paul here, describing the initial reaction from the party establishment, which acquiesced in the end. “It was very skeptical, to say the least.”

Now, Paul’s presidential campaign is in the tank, with poll numbers so dismal that he was kicked off the main stage of the Republican presidential debate last week in North Charleston, South Carolina. But even if Paul dropped his presidential bid, his name would remain on the ballot in the Kentucky caucus on March 5. Some in the state say he risks losing a contest that he himself engineered – a development that could prove embarrassing in his other race, the one for the Senate.

“There’s a lot of folks that don’t see him as necessarily the first choice right now,” said Scott Lasley, chairman of the Warren County Republican Party here in Paul’s hometown, Bowling Green. Asked if he backed Paul, Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University, replied: “Ummm? Off the record?”

The result is an oh-how-the-mighty-have-fallen story line in Kentucky, where the papers have for months been printing headlines like “Death Watch for Rand Paul Campaign.” Gone are the days when Paul’s choice of Kentucky Derby guest – the conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch – could stir front-page speculation about “the most interesting man in politics.”

Instead, around the state and here in Bowling Green, where people know Paul as an eye surgeon and a soccer coach to his three sons, the talk is of when he will quit his juggling act and come home.

“I think he ought to be spending more time on his Senate race,” Tommy Holderfield, an insurance broker and a Democrat who crossed party lines to vote for Paul, said last week after a Rotary Club luncheon here. “I think he has a better chance of winning that one.”

Paul declined to be interviewed. But aides to the senator – whose supporters briefly interrupted the debate last week with chants of “We Want Rand!” – say he is certainly not dropping his White House bid now, even though national polls show that only about 2 percent of Republicans favor his candidacy.

“The only timetable the campaign is focused on at the moment is when the ballots start being cast in Iowa,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to both Paul campaigns, noting that Paul still has no Democratic opponent in his Senate race.

That could change soon. The Kentucky filing deadline for candidates is Jan. 26 – days before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 – and Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, a wealthy former construction company executive who could help finance his own campaign, is considering jumping in.

Any Democrat faces an uphill battle in Kentucky, where Gov. Matt Bevin remade the political landscape in November with a Republican sweep that knocked out Adam Edelen, a former state auditor and the party’s best hope for beating Paul. But Democrats, sensing that Paul is hitting crunch time, are making hay over his have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too campaign.

“He’s not tending his garden – he’s hanging out in New Hampshire,” said Jim Cauley, a longtime Kentucky Democratic strategist. “I don’t think he thinks he has a problem, which I think is dangerous in politics.”

With his vision for limited government, isolationist foreign policy and disdain for political elites, Paul, 53, catapulted to Tea Party stardom in 2010 when he beat a Republican establishment candidate in a Senate primary here.

“He was a breath of fresh air,” said Gayla Warner, a close friend who hosted Paul’s first fundraiser and lives down the street from the Pauls in a gated community of spacious homes overlooking a man-made lake. Paul, dressed in one of his trademark blue-and-white checked shirts, greeted guests poolside.

Now Donald Trump and other Republican candidates are “sucking all the oxygen out of the room,” in the words of David Adams, who managed Paul’s 2010 Senate primary campaign.

As Warner said: “I’m surprised he is not ahead of them. I mean, Cruz? Ben Carson? Really?”

As to the Senate race, there is little evidence so far that Paul is even running one. He does not yet have a campaign headquarters; there are no “Paul for Senate” placards or signs. But he did publish an opinion piece in The Lexington Herald-Leader last week, headlined, “Presidential Race Not Distracting From Senate Work.”

The dual race is unusual, but not unheard-of.

In 1960 in Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson was on the ballot for Senate and for vice president, and in Delaware in 2008, Vice President Joe Biden, then a senator, ran for both offices. But Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of Paul’s fellow freshmen, gave up his chance at re-election this year to seek the Republican nomination for president.

Paul – who boycotted the “undercard debate” last week (and created a stir by raising his middle finger during a radio interview when asked about the news media) – campaigned in New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday and in Iowa on Monday. Allies say the senator, known for his free-market fervor, is not worried about the Senate race or the presidential caucus at home.

“He believes in competition,” said one person close to Paul, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not have authorization from the campaign to speak publicly. “He’s willing to have them come in and compete, and if the party wants Rubio, so be it.”

For Paul, arranging for the Kentucky Republican Party to stage its first presidential nominating caucus was no easy feat.

Paul had to win over a skeptical Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator and the Republican leader, whose backing prompted party leaders and county chairmen to get on board – but only after McConnell extracted a promise from Paul to foot the caucus bill. (The state pays for the regular primary election in May.)

So far, Paul aides say, his campaign has paid $250,000 to help county parties rent space, train and organize volunteers and have ballots printed.

“It’s a pretty big chore, since we’ve never done it before,” said Skaggs, who is on the party’s executive committee and opposed the move.

As Paul’s presidential fortunes decline, enthusiasm for the caucus has, paradoxically, gone up; many Kentucky Republicans say it will give them a bigger voice in the national nominating process. So far, 11 candidates have paid the $15,000 fee to participate, though who will actually campaign is unclear.

“Trump will come because of his ego, and Rand will come because he lives here,” Skaggs said.

Skaggs predicts that Paul will win the Kentucky caucuses, but he still backs another candidate: Jeb Bush.