U.S. Senator Rand Paul opposes a national law banning same-sex marriage and federal penalties for drug offenders. He’s said there could be “thousands of exceptions” to any abortion ban. And the Kentucky Republican questions the costs of federal farm subsidies.
For many of the evangelical Christians and abortion-rights opponents who dominate Iowa’s Republican presidential caucuses, the traditional first round of primary-season voting, those positions are unacceptable. These voters backed former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in 2012 and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, leading voices of the party’s religious wing.
Yet that’s the audience Paul, 50, will address tonight as the ophthalmologist and first-term lawmaker starts what amounts to a presidential exploratory tour that’s bucking party orthodoxy as he mulls a 2016 bid and seeks to expand his base beyond the limited-government Tea Party movement.
In an interview, Paul said he’s working to help his party find ways to become competitive in states along the nation’s coasts where it has largely fallen out of favor.
“What I’m talking about are different issues, different ideas, that I think can and may resonate,” he said. “I can’t prove to anyone that I’m that person, or will be that person --I don’t know if I’m going to be the person who even tries. But I think the party needs to reach out to diverse groups. We need to be more inclusive and I think that means going to predominantly African-American venues, Hispanic venues, Asian-American, you name it.”
Paul told reporters today in Iowa that he doesn’t plan to decide about a presidential bid until 2014 and expects to run for re-election to the Senate in 2016.
“I don’t feel a time constraint, necessarily,” he said. “In all likelihood, I will be on the ballot for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, though, and we haven’t really looked beyond that.”
In recent weeks, he’s spoken at historically black Howard University in Washington and to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, seeking out audiences some in his party rarely engage. After his Iowa appearance in Cedar Rapids, Paul is scheduled to speak at a May 20 dinner in New Hampshire, where voters typically cast primary ballots a few days after Iowans. About a month later, he’ll speak in another state with a traditionally early primary, South Carolina.
Paul said he also plans a series of trips around the country to “look at school choice and voucher programs in urban cities that have large Hispanic and African-American” populations that “are benefiting from these programs.”
Some of the buzz around Paul comes from his willingness to try new things, such as his decision to reach out to Howard University and secure a speaking spot before a predominantly black audience. The event wasn’t without miscues.
Paul drew some groans and was later criticized for seeming to lecture blacks on their own history. He asked one woman during the session whether she was aware that Republicans helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization based in Baltimore, Maryland. She was.
“I learned that the students there do know that Republicans founded the NAACP,” he said. “I freely admit that they seemed to be unhappy that I felt like they didn’t know that.”
Still, Paul said he’s convinced the vast majority of Americans don’t know that and the experience won’t deter him from trying to gain black support for Republicans.
“You have to show up, and I’m going to show up,” he said. “If you change the vote in Ohio from 5 percent of the African-American vote being Republican to 20 percent, Ohio is a Republican state again.”
In Iowa, Paul’s challenge with potential caucus voters at a sold-out party fundraising dinner will be to persuade them that they can trust him on abortion, gays and other traditional Republican issues that are important to them.
“Rand is going to try to thread that needle between social conservatives and the liberty grassroots part of the party,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a former candidate for Iowa governor and the president of the Family Leader, an Iowa-based coalition that opposes abortion rights and gay marriage. “If he’s able to do that, he’ll be very formidable. There’s a lot of intrigue about him right now.”
Vander Plaats said Iowans may tolerate Paul’s comments on abortion exceptions because he’s also authored a bill that would define life as beginning at conception. His views on same-sex marriage are another matter.
“We are definitely going to have visits with Rand on some of those things,” said Vander Plaats, who disagrees with Paul’s view that the legal status of same-sex marriage, like drug crimes, should be left up to the states.
“You don’t leave slavery up to the states, nor should you,” said Vander Plaats. “It’s either right or it’s wrong.”
Tamara Scott, one of Iowa’s three representatives on the Republican National Committee, agreed that some party activists will be troubled by Paul’s view that same-same marriage should be dealt with at the state level.
“It would be a concern for folks,” she said.
Paul said he thinks his party and the nation will eventually accept that different parts of the country have different views on certain issues.
“My position on this is the same as Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams,” he said. “Marriage is a state issue.”
In Paul’s view, human life begins at conception and should be granted legal protection from that moment on, although he muddied his message with a March 19 CNN interview where he said that as a physician he could see where there could be “thousands of exceptions” that could make abortion legal.
An aide later clarified that Paul meant that a singular exception to save a woman’s life would likely cover thousands of medically different individual cases.
Paul has also struggled to explain why his once-absolute stand against illegal immigration has changed. He’s embraced many of the provisions in a bipartisan Senate proposal backed by another potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, although he’s argued against a new pathway to citizenship -- an integral part of the measure.
“If they take some of my suggestions and make the border security aspect of the bill better, I’m a yes vote,” he said. “I want to be a yes vote.”
Even with his unorthodox positions on some Republican issues, Paul will arrive in Iowa with some built-in support. That’s because backers of his father, former Representative Ron Paul of Texas, have taken over key posts within the state’s Republican Party. A.J. Spiker, Ron Paul’s 2012 Iowa caucus campaign chairman, is state party chairman.
Mark Lundberg, the chairman of the party in heavily Republican Sioux County, said Paul “probably needs to separate himself a bit from his dad’s folks” if he does become a presidential candidate. “There is a lot of tension between the Ron Paul folks in leadership posts and the folks who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years,” Lundberg said.
The younger Paul has no quarrel with that advice.
“From here forward, I’m going to want to be judged for who I am and I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking and comparing issues with my father,” he said.