Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: Rand Paul faces two starkly different political environments

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., stands on stage during the Presidential Family Forum, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., stands on stage during the Presidential Family Forum, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press

As he returns to a state made very different by recent elections, Kentucky junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is trying to find a spark to lift his hopes in a presidential race made very different by recent terror attacks.

The dramatic changes locally and globally make for an uneven forecast for the senator and presidential candidate as he visits the Bluegrass State for a few days of events this week, including book signings in Lexington, Louisville and Bowling Green.

On the one hand, Paul is breathing easier than he was the last time he toured the state, joining then-candidate Matt Bevin at a sparsely attended event in early October just days after Bevin embarrassed the senator by refusing to endorse Paul during a gubernatorial debate on Kentucky Sports Radio.

Though it was less than two months ago, the state — and Paul’s local political calculus — have changed significantly.

The small crowd, combined with Paul’s struggling poll numbers and Bevin’s refusal to endorse him, all added up to a recipe for Republican worry that the senator was damaging his re-election prospects at home by chasing a presidential bid that looked less and less likely by the minute.

As Paul stood in the basement of the Baptist Campus Ministry building on Kentucky State University’s campus, telling reporters that Bevin’s lack of support was a “minor thing,” it seemed like a sad and steep fall for a presidential candidate who, in April, had multiple Republican candidates for governor, Bevin included, standing on the stage behind him as Paul announced his candidacy in Louisville.

In short, Paul looked damaged and weak, and Democrats were salivating at the prospect of taking him out next year.

Then Election Day happened, and the Republican wave that carried Bevin into office also knocked out Paul’s most likely and most dangerous opponent — outgoing state Auditor Adam Edelen.

Now the senator appears to be on easy street in his adopted home state as Kentucky Democrats reel from their losses, uncertain how to proceed and guessing who would be willing to take on Paul in a solidly red state.

In a sense, Paul has been liberated to focus on his presidential race, no longer concerned about a moderate Democrat running to his right on national security issues and forcing him to explain his recent votes against defense spending.

But those votes, and Paul’s general reputation when it comes to national security, are not doing Paul any favors as he continues to look for a magic formula that would return him to contention for the Republican presidential nomination.

Polling in the days since terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people shows that Republican primary voters have returned terrorism and national security to the top of their priority lists, and there are serious questions about whether Paul, who already was at the bottom of early state and national polls, can right his listing ship among increasingly turbulent waters.

In the days since the Paris tragedy, Paul joined the rest of the GOP field in focusing his attention on Syrian refugees, introducing legislation that would halt visa issuance for refugees from “high risk” countries and a bill that would stop refugees from those countries from receiving federal benefits and assistance.

But Paul has stopped short of following the calls of Donald Trump and others to create a national database of Muslims or to close some mosques.

On CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Paul was asked about those suggestions and responded that the proposals were “disqualifying” for someone who wants to be president of the United States.

“Should we target mosques and have a database of Muslims? Absolutely not,” Paul said. “And I think it’s really disqualifying for both Donald Trump and Marco Rubio to say that we’re going to close down every place that potentially has a discussion that might lead to extremism.”

Paul continued: “That would require some sort of religious czar that I think isn’t consistent with our freedom.”

But aside from that denunciation and Paul’s continued war against a surveillance state, it’s clear the senator has a problem if his party lurches toward a hawkish right, a problem highlighted by his warning on the show that the policies of President George W. Bush were partly to blame for the current problems.

“I think the first thing we have to do is learn from our history,” Paul said, adding that “when we’ve toppled secular dictators, we’ve gotten chaos and the rise of radical Islam.”

Moments after Paul’s interview concluded, host John Dickerson revealed the results of the latest CBS polls of early voting states, with Paul barely registering.

In Iowa, the senator was at 2 percent support. In New Hampshire, a state Paul once declared a must-win, he registered 6 percent support. And in South Carolina, he showed up with 1 percent.

Dickerson then asked his political panel about whether the landscape had changed since the Paris attacks, prompting Karl Rove, a top adviser to former President George W. Bush to say that it had.

“Your guest on earlier, Sen. Rand Paul, is going to suffer in the new environment,” Rove said.

The changes on the state and national stages indicate that Paul’s immediate political future is really a tale of two environments, with one looking much easier to negotiate and the other looking more daunting.

So just more than two months until the Kentucky filing deadline and the Iowa caucuses, Paul is returning to Kentucky at a time when his re-election has never looked more assured and his presidential hopes have never looked more unrealistic.

For Paul, there’s no place like home.