Fergus Cullen, a Republican political operative in New Hampshire, said Paul’s campaign may find momentum in the Granite State, where former Rep. Ron Paul, Rand Paul’s father, won 23 percent of the primary vote in 2012. Cullen added that Rand Paul’s talk of appealing to new constituencies is an approach more candidates should adopt.
“Rand seems to understand if he’s going to become president, he’s going to have find votes from non-Republicans,” he said. “I love that he’s talking about expanding Republicans’ reach and appeal. That is specifically not what Ted Cruz is doing. He’s alienating vast parts of the general electorate.”
Rand Paul has taken care to publicly distance himself from the message of his father, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012, attracting a vociferous grassroots following with a more purist libertarian platform. Ron Paul was an opponent of nearly all foreign interventions, believed that Social Security was unconstitutional and led a quixotic quest to abolish the Federal Reserve. Rand Paul, who worked on many of his father’s campaigns and grew up steeped in libertarian political tradition, has staked out more pragmatic positions and tried to downplay some of his libertarian roots. For instance, while he has expressed wariness of protracted foreign entanglements, he courted defense hawks last month, offering an amendment that would increase the Pentagon budget by $190 billion over two years, with offsets included.
“I don’t see Sen. Paul as a libertarian candidate,” said Texas state Sen. Don Huffines, a longtime family friend. “I see him as a true principled conservative Republican, and I think other Republicans are also going to see him that way.”
Still, Walter Block, an economics professor at Loyola College and a fellow at the pro-free-market Mises Institute, with which Ron Paul is affiliated, rated Rand Paul a 7 on the libertarian scale and Ron Paul at about a 9.
“He’s the most libertarian senator we’ve got and maybe that we’ve ever had, and he’s the most libertarian of the people being mentioned for president,” he said. “I’m very grateful for him running.”
Boaz too said that Rand Paul’s candidacy represents an inflection point for the libertarian movement, with an increasing number of voters attracted to a political philosophy that is skeptical of Big Government in the wake of Wall Street bailouts, the Iraq War and the abuses of the NSA. Paul’s campaign will test how far libertarian ideas can go in the Republican Party.
“I don’t know how well his moderate nonintervention or his realism will play with Republicans, because it hasn’t been tested yet, but there’s a chance we’re going to find out that not all Republicans get their talking points from Fox News,” Boaz said. “I think there’s going to be some Republicans who agree with a guy that says, ‘Let’s be more serious and cautious when we think about intervention.’”
But Paul has treaded into controversial territory by taking his skepticism of government to its farthest implications. He mused aloud on MSNBC about whether the Civil Rights Act should apply to private institutions — a stance taken by his father — although he later clarified that federal intervention was needed on the issue of racial discrimination in the 1960s. He argued this year, in the midst of a measles outbreak, that most vaccinations should be voluntary, even though he thought they are a good idea. This month, video surfaced of Paul saying in 2013 that he didn’t believe in gay rights because he didn’t believe “in rights based on your behavior.”
Scott Lasley, an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and a county GOP chairman in the state, said fumbles like the vaccination comments could ensnare Paul during a long nominating contest. Lasley added that Paul’s courting of young, moderate and African-American voters would need to be bolstered by more than just talk.
“It’s not like flipping a switch,” he said. “It could be helpful in branding himself as a different kind of Republican. But from a practical standpoint — that’s more long term, down the road.”