What the Heck Happened to Rand Paul?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 21, 2015 · 9:15 AM EDT

I never expected Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul would win his party’s nomination for president, but I did expect he would be a factor in the race. So far, he hasn’t been one. (See my February column on his foreign policy challenges here.)

While Paul’s father never was a serious contender for the Republican nomination in 2012, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul proved to be a strong fundraiser who was able to compete in low-turnout caucus states where his dedicated supporters showed energy and a deep commitment.

Paul has played the partisan game better than his father, who was the Libertarian nominee for president in 1988 and refused to support the GOP tickets in 2008 and 2012. I assumed that would allow the Kentucky Republican to broaden his appeal. After all, Paul has co-existed with his home-state Republican colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and demonstrated more political loyalty to his party than his father ever did.

Unlike Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who sought to rally tea party conservatives in the House against the GOP House leadership’s efforts to avoid a government shutdown in 2013, Paul has made an effort to behave more constructively.

Paul’s views on foreign policy, defense issues and cultural issues obviously have put him at odds with many in his own party and made it difficult to see the Kentucky senator as the Republican nominee in 2016. But more than a few political observers believed that, even with some issue positions that didn’t fit well within the GOP, Rand Paul would be worth watching.

But after raising only $2.5 million last quarter and participating in two debates (plus a third scheduled for Oct. 28), it’s probably getting close to the time when Paul will leave the GOP presidential contest and refocus the 2016 Kentucky Senate race.

Paul has multiple super PACs supporting his presidential bid, so he isn’t exactly defenseless. But unlike many of the other Republicans running for president this cycle, he has plenty to lose if he fights to the end (like his father did in 2012) and simply comes up short in Cleveland, Ohio, at the Republican National Convention.

Unlike Sen. Marco Rubio, who placed all of his eggs in the presidential basket and chose not to seek re-election at the same time that he was running for president, Paul has left himself two political paths. That shows that the Kentucky senator very much wants to stay in elective office, even if it isn’t the highest elective office in the land.

Paul is a serious, thoughtful man, but he isn’t raising enough money or showing any movement in the polls to suggest that he is a credible contender for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination. He isn’t getting much favorable media attention, and there is little or no buzz about him in Republican circles. He has become just another candidate back in the pack, waiting for his inevitable exit.

Why hasn’t the Kentucky Republican gotten any traction in his White House bid? Paul’s problem may well be that he is neither fish nor fowl. He is something in between.

In trying to reach beyond his father’s libertarian audience and appeal to mainstream Republicans, Paul may have alienated many libertarians, who now see him as a pale copy of his father rather than a new, improved version.

If that is the case, then it is the Kentucky senator’s effort to play the political game and compete for the GOP nomination that has made him less appealing to his father’s audience.

But, according to one savvy conservative operative, Paul’s approach — which has involved relying on voters from groups that traditionally don’t support Republicans — was inherently risky, even flawed.

Ultimately, it depended on the Kentucky Republican attracting younger voters, anti-war activists, pro-immigration supporters, minority voters and other usually Democratic voters to support his candidacy. But those voters could never feel comfortable in the GOP, a conservative political party that is more than a loose coalition of demographic and issue groups.

Since Paul’s foreign policy/national security assumptions and beliefs are so different from those held by most Republicans — and certainly most conservatives — the senator has had a difficult time attracting support from within his own party.

Libertarians may eventually constitute a substantial part of the GOP, but for now they remain a marginalized group within the party. Paul lacked his father’s ideological purity, but he was also unable to broaden his appeal within the Republican Party. Together, those two realities have limited him to the edges of the 2016 presidential race.