U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky dropped out of the 2016 presidential race Wednesday after a fifth-place finish in the Iowa Republican caucus two days earlier.
Paul said he will focus his attention on his re-election in Kentucky, where he faces a Democratic challenger in Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. Voters elected Paul to the Senate in 2010.
“Although today I will suspend my campaign for president, the fight is far from over,” Paul said in a statement. “I will continue to carry the torch for liberty in the United States Senate, and I look forward to earning the privilege to represent the people of Kentucky for another term.”
As of Dec. 31, Paul had raised $11.4 million and had spent $10.1 million on his presidential campaign. But he couldn’t break into the top rank of GOP candidates, dominated by Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Dr. Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“It’s been an incredible honor to run a principled campaign for the White House,” Paul said. “Today, I will end where I began, ready and willing to fight for the cause of liberty.”
After bursting onto the national scene with a 13-hour filibuster of CIA director John Brennan’s nomination in March 2013, Paul was long thought to be the early frontrunner for the GOP nomination, winning the title of “the most interesting man in politics” by Time magazine.
In January 2014, The Atlantic named Paul the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, a distinction that Paul told the Herald-Leader sounded “unlucky.” That description proved prophetic.
Once Paul formally launched his campaign in April 2015, he was overshadowed by the high-profile antics of Trump and watched his Liberty movement support move toward Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses.
Early on, however, it looked like Paul had concocted the perfect recipe for victory, blending the enormous base of Tea Party support for his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, with the backing of an establishment leader in U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But Paul’s campaign was doomed from the start.
Paul immediately found himself under attack from the hawkish wing of the party, fending off accusations that he embodied a weak, isolationist foreign policy.
As the Islamic State grew and Americans watched in horror as hostages were beheaded and Republicans returned to a more muscular foreign policy posture, Paul was left behind, largely becoming an afterthought in a race that was dominated by Trump and national security issues.
Those realities were reflected in Paul’s poll numbers and fundraising abilities, both of which plummeted.
His strategy of building a bridge between Tea Party and establishment Republicans backfired as libertarian and Tea Party purists who had followed the elder Paul began to question the son’s flirtations with the establishment.
As candidates tried to one-up each other with claims of being the true outsider, Paul was left between a rock and a hard place, enjoying McConnell’s endorsement even as Cruz portrayed the majority leader as one of the enemies.
While the campaign wore on, Paul struggled to remain relevant, but the news stories coming from his campaign were not the kind of publicity that helps a candidate win.
From the embarrassment of publicly calling one of his own stunts “dumbass” to the indictments of top aides Jesse Benton and John Tate, which so far have resulted in dismissals or acquittals, Paul’s campaign appeared to be in free fall from the beginning.
By ending his campaign, Paul is now free to focus on his 2016 U.S. Senate re-election, easing the minds of many Kentucky and national Republicans who long worried that Paul was flirting with disaster by pursuing two offices at once.
On Wednesday, McConnell continued to praise the efforts of Kentucky’s junior senator, calling Paul “a uniquely talented conservative with an important message and an irrepressible will.”
“He made an important contribution to the presidential campaign trail, and he brings that same spirit to his ongoing Senate race,” McConnell said. “Kentuckians need Rand Paul’s voice in Washington, and I’m confident they’ll continue to have it beyond November.”
Democrats have been intensely critical of Paul’s divided attention, accusing him of neglecting Kentuckians as he pursued his presidential ambitions. Paul’s consistent reply was to point to a near-perfect attendance record in the U.S. Senate.
Gray cited Paul’s presidential campaign as one reason for getting in the race late last month, and said Wednesday that Kentuckians “deserve to be more than just a fallback plan.”
“And we certainly deserve a senator whose focus is on Kentucky, not one focused on planning his next run for president,” Gray said in a statement.
Democrats remained hopeful Wednesday that the senator had hurt his re-election chances by spending so much time on a losing presidential campaign.
Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Paul’s “longshot Presidential bid comes to an end but the damage to his reputation in Kentucky remains.”
“Paul has lost support from across the state and been slammed by Republican activists at home after he made clear he viewed the Senate seat as little more than a consolation prize,” Weiner said. “Rand Paul returns home damaged and completely out-of-touch with the people he’s ignored, and Kentucky is ready for a senator who will always put them first.”
Gray’s late entry into the race coupled with Paul’s suspension of his presidential campaign would suggest that Democrats squandered whatever head start they might have enjoyed while Paul was distracted.
And despite months of hand-wringing, Republicans continue to be confident of Paul’s re-election hopes since he is running in a state that has lurched hard to the right as a result of widespread disapproval of President Barack Obama.
Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Paul “has distinguished himself as a champion for the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the United States Senate.”
“That commitment to fighting for Kentucky families remains unchanged,” Baker said. “We look forward to the campaign ahead to ensure that Senator Paul continues to serve the Bluegrass State in the Senate. His strong record of fighting for limited government stands in stark contrast to Jim Gray’s status as Barack Obama’s liberal surrogate in Kentucky.”
But the end of Paul’s campaign also means that Paul won’t be an active candidate in the Kentucky presidential caucuses that he lobbied and helped pay for.
Over the last year, Paul persuaded a reluctant Republican Party of Kentucky to hold a presidential caucus this year, rather than the traditional primary, so he could skirt a state law prohibiting federal candidates from appearing twice on the same ballot. Paul gave $250,000 to the state party last year to help pay for the March 5 caucus.
There is no mechanism for Paul to remove his name from the ballot in Kentucky.
The announcement also comes just days before the New Hampshire primary, the second nominating contest. Last spring, Paul deemed New Hampshire a must-win state for his campaign, suggesting the state’s fierce libertarian streak would match up well with his candidacy.
Just 24 hours after announcing his candidacy, Paul told reporters in Milford, N.H., that “the way our system works is, there is a great deal of momentum that comes out of the early states, and I do agree with people that say New Hampshire has a ‘leave-me-alone’ attitude.”
“So that’s something that fits very well with what I have to say and what I believe,” Paul said. “And so I think we’re a natural fit in New Hampshire. And I’m not going to shy away from saying yes, we absolutely, not only do we want to win in New Hampshire, we feel that it’s extraordinarily important to win New Hampshire.”
In the initial hours after the Iowa caucuses, it appeared that Paul was ready to continue his fight after top aide Doug Stafford emailed a fundraising plea that claimed “there are five tickets out of Iowa, and there’s no doubt Rand holds one.”
But momentum was as elusive for Paul in the last few days as it was throughout the campaign.
Reporter John Cheves contributed to this story.