In Rand Paul, the family and the movement see a successor. The Establishment sees a hostage.
Rand Paul watches his father speak in Ankeny, Iowa on January 3.
(Reuters / Jim Young)
CONCORD, New Hampshire -- For many of Ron Paul’s devoted supporters, the presidential campaign is a kind of a long publicity stunt – an opportunity to spread the gospel of Hayek, to preach to the masses of young Libertarians. The candidate himself is visibly animated by the campaign; he does not appear to have given much thought to filling cabinet posts.
But Rand Paul, the candidate’s middle son, does not like to lose. The junior senator from Kentucky is not even a good enough politician to pretend. Standing on stage in Ankeny as his father put on his usual mischievous and animated show following a disappointing third-place finish in Iowa, the slight son looked pained and distant as he stared blankly into the ranks of cheering supporters.
"I was just exhausted, and probably a little disappointed,” Paul told BuzzFeed at a sports bar here a few days later. "I mean, you always want to win."
Rand Paul got something closer to a win when his father scored a strong second in New Hampshire, a high water mark for the family. It was a mark that, after decades of being a leading libertarian voice in the country and perennial candidate, Ron Paul had finally battled his way in from the fringe. In the last leg of his career on the public stage, he has broadened his support beyond the hard core, and taken advantage of the Tea Party moment to offer the most durable alternative to Mitt Romney’s Establishment Republicanism. After this presidential run, his campaign has said he’ll retire. And when he does, a generation of loyalists will need a leader.
“I think Rand could be a wonderful president,” said Jesse Benton, the Paul campaign chairman and husband of Rand Paul’s niece.
In the meantime, the family’s dreams for Rand have created something else: A hostage. Terrified Republican leaders worry that Ron Paul will take his rowdy mix of Republicans and independents and run a spoiler third party campaign he hasn’t quite ruled out. Ron Paul, they are making clear, has nothing to lose – but his son’s career.
“The question of Rand’s future hangs over the 2012 race in a real way,” said John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt.“If [Ron Paul] were to leave the GOP it would have a crushing effect on his son’s political career in the Republican Party and would be ruinous to any chance of a serious national campaign under the Republican banner.”
And while Ron Paul hasn’t ruled out a third party bid, his aides insist it won’t happen. Inside the Paul clan, Rand’s generation is rising, and the dream is a new kind of Paul campaign: One that’s dead serious, a tick or two closer to the mainstream, and one that wins.
Pressed by BuzzFeed, Rand Paul wouldn’t rule out running for president. He is, he said, “interested in the national debate.”
Rand is universally known, in Paul world, by his first name alone, which he and his father insist isn’t derived from that of the libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand. He’s quiet but confrontational, a man whose problems with authority are serious enough that he once led a renegade group of opthalmologists against the profession’s main medical association. He was widely dismissed in his 2010 Senate campaign, which was marked by coverage of his utter hostility to the federal government and some colorful college pranks; he came through, accurately, as a true outsider and in an outsider’s year, he mowed down both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s primary choice and a strong Democrat in November.
He’s been absent from Bowling Green a lot lately, however, and two days before the New Hampshire primary, he was meeting supporters at the Concord sports bar. The gathering was small for a Paul event, with about 20 people in the room, half of them press.
Rand wore a mock turtleneck with a blazer and khakis, looking more like a scientist or academic on a weekend than a politician. The son lacks his father’s zany warmth, and projects a flat affect. Slight and unassuming with icy blue-grey eyes, he doesn’t take up the usual space of a U.S. Senator. He tires on the trail, and complains about it. He is the anti-Chris Christie, exuding a cool intellectualism and not the hearty vitality that propels presidential retail politics. Rand also has trouble feigning interest in some aspects of the process. Of the debate at St. Anselm’s College last Saturday night, he said “I had trouble sitting for two hours, but then again you’re watching but not participating.”
Rand answered the question about his own ambitions the way he always does: he’s just here to help his father.
Later, BuzzFeed asked if Rand would serve in a Ron Paul White House. “If he was elected I think I’d stay in the Senate,” Paul said. “I think I’m in a good position to argue for limited government from my Senate seat.”
The talk that follows Rand in the tight, eccentric Paul circles, though, is about his own future.
BuzzFeed spoke with dozens of diehard Ron Paul fans in New Hampshire, many of whom shared the reaction of Lisa Gravel, a mail carrier from Manchester: “I love Rand. I would absolutely support him.”
“He and Dr. Paul are the next Kennedy dynasty,” Gravel said.
“I think Rand Paul is the future of the liberty movement,” a Paul fan from Massachusetts named Brendan Navom told BuzzFeed.
Rand dismissed a question about whether he’d inherit his father’s support with a joke.
“Unfortunately, they’ll all be in their jobs by then and out of college and I don’t know if they’ll be around to help me,” he cracked.
The inheritance isn’t actually automatic. Some committed Paulites believe the senator has already made too many compromises, particularly on foreign policy. These shifts made Rand acceptable to a broad conservative coalition in Kentucky, and make him a plausible national figure on paper, but they dampen his father’s sense of contrarian delight. Rand is also free of his father’s baggage, however: Racist newsletters, unsavory associates are at a generation’s remove.
And party officials are signaling a willingness to take Rand Paul seriously if it will keep Ron in the fold.
“Republicans dismiss the Ron Paul dynamic way too quickly,” said Curt Anderson, a Republican consultant advising Governor Rick Perry. “You cannot look past the numbers of votes he is getting from younger voters, or the votes he is getting from independents. My theory is this -- the younger generation has to some extent given up on government altogether.”
“I think we have more influence within the Republican party,” Rand Paul told BuzzFeed Aspects of the Paul platform have become increasingly mainstream as Tea Party ideals filter through the GOP.
And so the Paul family will be faced this year with a choice between the father’s present and the son’s future. Insiders expect the current candidate to swallow his pride and support Romney when he gets the nod. They also appear committed to allowing Rand to be Rand, and not a retread of Ron.
Of his father, “He kind of does his thing, I do my own thing,” the younger Paul told BuzzFeed. “Maybe it’s just personality.”
The risk with Rand is that his more palatable views, and the fact that he doesn’t have the same cult of personality as Ron, might alienate his father’s base of devoted fans. But they may be stuck with Rand: No other figures seem on the horizon to lead Paul’s movement, after Ron Paul’s run snuffed out the hopes of a would-be successor, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Rand’s potential is in finding a path between the fringe and the Establishment, to carry the standard of a movement while bringing aboard some mainstream Republicans. And on the trail in New Hampshire, Rand Paul showed some signs of tiring of the surrogate’s role. He told BuzzFeed that he had a tough time looking happy that night in Iowa not just because of the fatigue, but also because of the bothersome stagecraft.
"It’s hard – have you ever tried standing behind someone and smiling for 20 minutes? I learned my lesson,” he said.
“Next time I’m not standing right behind him."