John Gaskin wasn’t sure what to expect when he heard a U.S. senator wanted to meet privately with local activists, educators and pastors to talk about the concerns of black residents during the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
Gaskin, a college student and youth organizer who was born in Ferguson 22 years ago, set up the meeting at the request of the national NAACP on the senator’s behalf. He figured the lawmaker–a white Republican from Kentucky–would do most of the talking.
“It did make me think that maybe this is an issue that he’s concerned about.”—@johngaskinstl on @RandPaul
So the young black man was pleasantly surprised when Rand Paul actually did a lot of listening to the 15 or so folks who showed up last October at a real estate office in Ferguson. And when the senator spoke, it was about ideas to create jobs, improve schools and turn around criminal offenders—all with a smaller role for government and its taxes, regulations and fines.
“That meeting is what needs to take place more often. We can’t have Republicans who are afraid to sit down with African Americans in urban areas and have these discussions,” Gaskin says in an interview with The Daily Signal, adding:
“It takes guts for someone from his state, with his following, to come and sit down to talk about civil rights issues in Ferguson. I’ll admit it takes courage.”
If one thing looks certain about Paul’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president, which he is set to announce Tuesday, his determination to seek out and engage potential new GOP voters will put him in many more unconventional settings.
“Rand has the chance to be the iPhone of politics and be truly different from some of the flip-phone and rotary dial, same-old-idea candidates around him,” former Kentucky congressman Geoff Davis says.
Mike Jones, 66, a veteran of St. Louis city and county government who describes himself as a liberal urban Democrat, did not attend the Ferguson meeting but is aware of Paul’s meetings with local black leaders across the country.
Jones, vice president of the Missouri Board of Education and former head of the St. Louis Housing Authority, gives Paul credit for showing up in Ferguson. He insists, however, that the senator’s real target is “moderate white voters” as distinct from “the neanderthals that make up the right wing of the Republican Party.”
“He got more resonance at the national level from being here than he got from any local audience,” Jones says. “There’s a huge credibility issue.”
But those who know Paul, who turned 52 in January, say he’s both genuine and comfortable bringing his “libertarian-ish” conservative message to young voters broadly and minorities in particular. They range from students at historic black colleges such as Bowie State University in Maryland and Howard University in Washington, D.C., to tech entrepreneurs swarming the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.
“He’s definitely taking a different approach,” Gaskin says, stressing that he was speaking for himself about Paul and not as a member of the NAACP’s national board. “It will be interesting to see what it yields for him. … It appears that people are listening.”
That’s the kind of open ears that Elroy Sailor, who first met Paul after his well-received Howard appearance in April 2103 and is aboard the fledgling campaign. Himself a son of inner-city Detroit, Sailor, 46, has organized and accompanied the senator to small gatherings of black activists and leaders in Motor City as well as in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston and other cities.
“We’re not watering down our conservative policies, we’re supercharging them,” Sailor says. “We believe you can be a social and economic conservative and care about ‘the least of them.’”
Paul’s core message is about limiting government and promoting individual liberty, as envisioned in the Constitution and guaranteed—as he reminds audiences—in the Bill of Rights by such provisions as the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable government intrusions into personal privacy.
Paul tells audiences about related causes he has championed in the Senate, from criminal justice reform to auditing the Federal Reserve Bank, from rolling back government capturing of personal phone records to opposing President Obama’s nomination of Loretta Lynch as U.S. attorney general on civil rights grounds.
“In the dust-up over religious liberty, Rand Paul has in the past proven to be a defender of conscience.”—@andrewtwalk
Lee Edwards, a Heritage Foundation scholar who is a historian of modern American conservatism, says Paul’s small-government message reminds him of Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. Although unlike Goldwater, he notes, Paul is not a foreign policy hawk and, more like Ronald Reagan, he is careful not to “alienate” conservative Christians.
“On balance, his candidacy is a plus for the Republican Party and the conservative movement because it is idea-driven and ideas are the little gray cells of politics,” Edwards says.
After a formal announcement that he is in the race just before noon Tuesday in Louisville, Paul heads out on a four-day “Stand With Rand Tour” of early caucus and primary states with rallies in Milford, N.H.; Mount Pleasant, S.C.; Iowa City, Iowa; and Las Vegas. For now, at least, he also is running for re-election to the Senate.
Paul has both the advantage and—in some eyes—disadvantage of being the son of the best-known libertarian politician in America: Ron Paul, a physician who for more than 25 years was a Republican congressman from two different Texas districts. He ran three times for president with the fervent backing of predominantly young Americans who otherwise were not much interested in politics.
Although Paul the elder voted like a traditional conservative on many domestic issues, his isolationist stance on foreign policy and national security matters—including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—put him at sharp odds with most Republicans and many Democrats.
Paul was “a small-town doctor” himself—an ophthalmologist—before he ran for Senate in his first bid for public office. He had, however, founded taxpayer unions in both North Carolina and Kentucky, worked on his father’s 1988 bid for president and managed his comeback congressional campaign in 1996.
Friends and more neutral observers describe Paul as smart, full of ideas, optimistic, relaxed. They say his “regular guy” demeanor serves him well in building coalitions and consensus.
It also helps establish mutually respectful working relationships with liberal Senate Democrats such as Cory Booker of New Jersey (on reintegrating nonviolent felons) and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (on battling sexual assault in the military). Last month Paul teamed with both to sponsor the Senate’s first medical marijuana bill.
Mark Meckler, a founder of the tea party movement in 2010, split with it over what he considered inadequate independence from the Republican Party. Now he tracks the large field of likely Republican presidential candidates as head of his own organization, Citizens for Self-Governance.
“From my perspective, more than anyone else in the race he does not come across as a politician,” Meckler says of Paul, with whom he recently met. “He comes across as a regular guy who is in Washington, D.C., because he doesn’t like what’s going on.”
He’s willing to go into places that are difficult for a Republicans to go. Every time I’ve seen him do it, he’s been a happy warrior.
One veteran Capitol Hill hand says Paul’s “embrace of non-traditional Republican constituencies” tests the values of younger Americans, who are used to having choices in nearly everything at the tap of an app.
“I just don’t think that he’s a centralizer. Some Republicans are. He wants to push the power away from Washington, D.C.”—@MarkMeckler
Paul has them examine their own tendency to support liberals who want more government control of the economy and individual decisions, the longtime political observer says. The senator’s message prompts the question: “So which party stands for freedom and choice and flexibility?”
In the same way, he notes, Paul asks low-income and jobless Americans, many of them minorities, to consider replacing failed liberal policies with solutions such as tax cuts and deregulation to jump-start job creation in inner cities. The former Hill aide adds:
There ought to be some re-evaluation and ‘By golly,’ [Paul] seems to be saying, ‘my campaign ought to be the vehicle of that re-evaluation.’ … There’s a sincerity that comes through that’s disarming to an audience that may be prepared to dislike him. He doesn’t come across as an oily, used-car-salesman politician.
Paul caught the eye of conservatives and liberals alike in March 2013 with a 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor protesting Obama administration policy on the use of drones, including against noncombatants on U.S. soil. That stand is recalled in a video released Sunday by the Paul camp.
Social conservatives appreciate that Paul “has been an unwavering defender of the rights of the unborn” and “hasn’t adopted the mistaken viewpoint that the Constitution requires redefining marriage,” notes Andrew Walker, director for policy studies for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“Paul stands as a potential bridge between the libertarian and social conservative camps,” Walker says.
“He’s got a good gut. He’s got a good sense of timing and seizing the moment.”—@KYTrey on @RandPaul
Trey Grayson, the party establishment’s designated candidate for Senate in Kentucky’s May 2010 primary, initially underestimated Paul’s strengths as a communicator on his way to losing to the upstart newcomer.
Grayson kept a promise to support Paul, who cast himself as the one to “shake up Washington,” in the general election campaign.
Now executive director of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce following a stint heading Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Grayson developed a cordial relationship with his former opponent. He later introduced the senator when he spoke at both Harvard and the chamber.
In cases where his position might not sit well with an audience, Grayson recalls, Paul already had the political savvy to “answer the questions in a way that wouldn’t disqualify him if you didn’t agree,” keeping his listeners interested.
Grayson soon grew to appreciate why Paul supporters consistently asked voters: “Have you heard Dr. Paul speak?”
The Republican Party is much in need of such communication skills and efforts to go after young people and minorities, he says.
“The party will die if we don’t grow the base.”
“The fact that he has had the courage to go into the Democratic bastions … and after younger voters in ways few national figures have done should be admired, regardless of one’s politics.”—Geoff Davis
Geoff Davis, a Republican who in 2012 retired from a House seat representing Kentucky, supported Paul after he won the nomination for Senate and found him a valuable ally on legislation to subject government regulations to cost considerations.
“Rand will add a much-needed, fresh voice to the debate,” Davis says, adding: “He has an almost evangelical zeal to broaden the reach and appeal of the party.”
Uncertainty if not outright hostility among some conservatives to Paul’s non-interventionist leanings on foreign policy and national security pose a significant obstacle to the GOP presidential nomination, even admiring observers say.
“A limited government requires a strong, vibrant family, and I think this is something that Paul understands.”—@andrewtwalk
Paul will have to define himself successfully as independent of his father’s isolationist views before opponents tie them together, Davis and Grayson say. Many tea party conservatives want to be convinced he would stand by close allies such as Israel and not be weak or indecisive, Meckler says.
Billie Tucker, a tea party leader in Florida, says Paul needs to show he isn’t “complacent with our national security.” Americans already think President Obama “has put us in harm’s way” on everything from border security to amnesty for illegal immigrants and from the ISIS terrorist group to the pending nuclear deal with Iran, she says.
Paul also drew concern with his comments that the party overemphasizes the need for voters to show ID at the polls. “There are many in the movement who believe voter fraud is a big deal,” Tucker says.
Brian Darling, a former communications aide to Paul who previously worked with many senators and their staffs as part of The Heritage Foundation’s government relations team, says his ex-boss faces a fierce effort to distort his positions.
“Many in the neoconservative movement want to marginalize Rand Paul,” Darling says. “They fear his philosophy because it’s less interventionist and would be a foreign policy that’s a little more restrained than many are pushing for right now. They’re trying to basically say he’s a carbon copy of his dad, when he’s not. He’s his own man.”
“Don’t underestimate him. There’s something special about him, and he’s got a lot of talent.”—@KYTrey on @RandPaul
Sailor, a partner with former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts in a Washington-based government relations firm, says Paul’s campaign is intent on bringing more people into the GOP without losing conservatives or libertarians.
“We don’t have to abandon our old friends to make new friends,” Sailor says. “We just have to be secure in our message. We have to believe in our message.”