How Rand Paul Is Trying to Win Over Democrats

And why it might work.

US Republican Senator from Kentucky Rand Paul addresses the 2015 Conservative Policy Summit at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on January 13, 2015.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa—It is no easy thing for a Republican, a probable candidate for president, to praise Eric Holder. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul brought the audience along as gently as he could. He had just delivered eight minutes of remarks on the need to audit the Federal Reserve, and reminded a wine bar packed with Iowa voters of his privacy rights civil suit against the Department of Justice.

“It’s none of their damn business what you do on your phone!” said Paul.

More than a hundred people, who’d paid at least $15 per person to hear Paul, whooped with applause. Paul had them—he went right into his story about lunching with the outgoing attorney general.

“He looks at me, and he says, ‘I see you’re suing me and the president today,’” remembered Paul. “I said, ‘Well, we can still be friends, right?’” The laughs subsided; Paul got to his point. “A lot of conservatives have had nothing but derision for Holder. I can understand the objections. However, he’s getting ready to be replaced right now, and at the very end, Holder did some good things on criminal justice.”

Paul described how Holder’s DOJ had scaled back civil forfeiture programs, bringing a partial halt to a program that disproportionately hurt “poor kids, black kids.” (The crowd, like any cross-section of Iowa residents, was almost wholly white.) This was something of a wind-up. Paul was explaining that the nominee to replace Holder, Loretta Lynch, had said she was “fine with” civil forfeiture and had “confiscated a million dollars from people who were never charged.” The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, had fought Lynch over one family business’s seizure—all Paul needed to do was tell the story. The crowd rediscovered the applause-o-meter when Paul pledged to defeat Lynch.

All that said: A Republican who was staffing up to run for president had just saluted Mr. Fast and Furious himself. Cameras were rolling. Trackers were tracking. This could be thrown right back at Paul someday—and Paul did not care. In Congress, he was trying to work with Democrats, and in Iowa, he was trying to build a coalition on top of the Republican base.

The shape of this coalition was clear enough in the Jasper Winery, where voters with nothing in common rubbed shoulders. Robert Ussery, director of the Iowa Minutemen, listened approvingly to Paul, then stuck around to talk about how right the senator had been about government spying. He then handed over a business card with the slogan “The Illegals Are Coming.” Not far away, two college students who’d driven two hours to see Paul talked about how he could earn their first-ever caucus votes.

“I just took an economics class and I can tell you that Rand Paul’s right about the Fed,” said Robert O’Hare, 18. “It regulates supply and demand, which results in the sort of bubbles that brought on the Great Recession.”

“I have a friend from Arizona State who got busted for marijuana possession,” said Ryan Kelly, 19. “Whenever he talks about it, I say: ‘Rand Paul 2016.’”

This was not a joke. This was why Paul’s Iowa ambitions were burgeoning—and why making pitches that landed with Democrats could work for him. In the last Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll of the state, Paul did best among voters under 45, voters who wanted to reject the “establishment,” and voters who worried about electability. A year from this week, when the caucuses are likely to take place, some glum young Democrats might be looking at a contest between Hillary Clinton and some also-rans, or a contest of Paul and an array of grey suits. They could join up with the remnants of Ron Paul’s coalition and the libertarian wing of the GOP. That could be enough to win the caucus.

It’s a theory, anyway, and it contrasts with the argument Paul’s co-Iowa-frontrunner Scott Walker has been making. The governor of Wisconsin had introduced himself to Iowa conservatives with a speech at January’s Freedom Summit that made exactly zero concessions to the left. He told the story of how he dismantled Democrats and unions. In Walker’s cosmos, Democrats were the sorts of people who issued death threats to his wife and kids.

“I think we need a presidential candidate who can excite and turn out the base,” said Representative Rod Blum, who upset the Democrats to win Iowa’s blue-tinted first district in 2014. “Governor Walker and I have talked about that. He was telling me that in his elections, virtually every Republican voter came out and voted for him—it was 99 percent, or something.” That wasn't what Paul was saying. “Rand excites the base—not all of this—but he is reaching out beyond the party.”

Paul is also, for the moment, immune to controversy. He’s as gaffe-proof as tax-preppers are recession-proof. On Saturday morning, he campaigned with Blum at a Legends Bar and Grill in Marshalltown, north and east of Des Moines. He made a full circuit of a banquet room, shaking hands (he’d warded off a cold that had previously downgraded him to elbow-bumping) and posing for selfies. He signed five baseballs and a Time magazine cover (rest of magazine removed) that called him “the most interesting man in politics.”

Absolutely no one asked him about the comments he made about vaccines and “freedom” on Laura Ingraham’s radio show and on a CNBC segment. In short conversations, voters revealed that they either hadn’t heard of the vaccine fracas, or that they disagreed but weren’t holding it against the senator. Paul’s speech didn’t touch on the topic, focusing instead on “Hillary’s war” in Libya and on the blowback of foreign adventures.

“The missing pages of the 9/11 report that are not allowed to be made public—I can tell you what I think’s in them,” said Paul. “I haven’t read them. They’re still top secret. They’re links of the attackers on 9/11 to high people in the Saudi Arabian government and wealthy people in the Saudi Arabian society. They’ve been financing radical Islam for 30, 40, 50 years. If they’re allies, they need to be told: No more.”

That was what Paul preferred to talk about. The vaporization of the vaccine story didn’t surprise him at all.

“I think people in Washington get a little more concerned with themselves and the news cycle than people here do,” Paul said in an interview. “Also, I think maybe there’s a little more of a balanced approach here than the viciousness of the news cycle.”

For Paul, the story of the vaccine distraction was that the media was viper-fanged and cheap. It wasn’t that he’d mentioned parents who thought the “mental problems” of their kids were linked to vaccines—a theory he had heard, but did not endorse.

“Haven’t you heard of people who are worried about it?” Paul asked. “Everybody’s heard of that. But nobody wants to admit any balance in this. It’s like you’re somehow a flat earther if you acknowledge that some people have some fears. But nine-tenths of everything I said was that I believe in vaccines. Even McClatchy, which is a real news service, and not a blogging thing, said ‘Paul claims vaccines cause this.’ That’s not what I said. When you’re speaking extemporaneously, it’s hard to say everything perfectly.”

It was easier when the mics were off. After campaigning with Blum, Paul barnstormed the Hilton Auditorium where Iowa State’s basketball team would dismantle Texas Tech. He took a courtside seat next to Steve Sukup, a barbarian-maned businessman who’d just endorsed him. At halftime, with a gymnastics show providing some cover, he mingled with Representative Steve King, Governor Terry Branstad, and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, and then he trekked over to a student center for a watch party with Young Americans for Liberty, a group founded in 2008 after his father's paternal presidential campaign ended.

Paul’s Iowa boosters saw no contradiction there. Paul’s enemies spotted a farce. Before he got to Iowa, even while fending off the vaccine story, Paul had been splattered with headlines about how the “liberty movement” had weakened him for the caucuses. Ron Paul’s backers had taken over the Iowa GOP in 2012. Two years later, chairman A.J. Spiker had resigned and joined Paul’s PAC. Plenty of other Republicans would go on the record about what a disaster Spiker was.

“He, as a state chairman, wasn't so much a team player,” Branstad told National Journal. “He was more interested on focusing on certain agenda items as opposed to electing candidates.”

Paul's allies were amused. None of this matched what they seem to had on the ground, seeded by two Ron Paul campaigns, larger and more active than any other campaign's theoretical ground game.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” asked David Fischer, a co-chair of the Iowa GOP in the Spiker era, who shadowed Paul at every one of his weekend events. “We’ve been out for a year, and I haven’t heard anything about this so-called tension. Then the poll comes out. Then A.J. goes to Israel with the RNC, so he can’t be reached.” (Some current and former committee members are on a scandal-tinged Holy Land junket.)

Paul had already laughed off any talk of a donor intervention, or of the “liberty movement” wounding him in Iowa. “There are always going to be people who have chosen other candidates or who for one reason or another hold a grudge,” he told the Des Moines Register this week. And on the walk over to the watch party, when asked about Walker's alternative theory of how Republicans could win, Paul was just as circumspect. 

“I just haven’t really paid much attention to what he’s doing,” said Paul. “I do what I do and see whether or not it resonates. We’ve shown by example—meeting with the NAACP, going to Berkeley, going to Howard. The ultimate winning strategy is that we do stick to our core beliefs, but we talk about the aspects of them that attract new people.”

At the bottom of a stairwell, a roomful of young libertarians was waiting. One more question: What did Paul think of President Barack Obama’s speech to the National Prayer Breakfast? From Rick Santorum to Charles Krauthammer to everyone passing through the Fox News green room, countless conservatives had piled on Obama for the speech. For any Republican who wanted it, here was an easy three-pointer.

Paul opted not to shoot it. He would only praise the NASCAR driver who’d been neglected in one of those sandstorms the Washington media was so good at stirring up.

“I don’t really have a specific comment on it,” said Paul. “I liked Darrel Waltrep’s speech. I thought he was more interesting, and entertaining, and informative.”

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