Rand Paul 2016: Everything to Everybody, If Only for a Day

The Kentucky senator's coalition is unlike any the Republican party has seen before.

Senator Rand Paul announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination during an event at the Galt House hotel in Louisville, Ky., on April 7, 2015.

Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE–Jonathan Reynolds showed up for Rand Paul's presidential announcement with his girlfriend, an arm tattoo of a bong, and a felony conviction.

"It was for sale of a schedule 2 substance under a half gram," he remembered, after the Kentucky senator had announced his presidential bid and started working the crowd of 1,000-plus supporters. "The charge is what got me into college."

Reynolds, a 21-year old law student at the University of South Carolina, had remade his life after the conviction. Yet like any felon, he was badly limited in his options. He couldn't even vote. The injustice of that had brought him even closer to Paul, whom he started following after he saw his father, former Texas Representative Ron Paul, on the Daily Show. He agreed with the Pauls on basically everything; it was a bonus that the senator was one of very few Republicans campaigning to restore the voting rights of felons.

"I went to school for political science because of Rand Paul," said Reynolds, "and I'm going to law school because of Rand Paul."

In the many speeches that presaged his announcement—the best lines from them appeared today, onstage or in videos—Paul had occasionally urged Republicans to reach out to "people with tattoos" and "pony tails" and "nose rings." That call was answered in Louisville, in a ballroom packed elbow-to-elbow, where a man with blue-dyed hair stood, next to a man with a mullet, next to a pastor in an eight-button Sunday suit.

"I didn't expect it to be this electric," said Representative Thomas Massie, a congressman from north Kentucky who has modeled his own politics after Paul's. "If you ran into someone on the streets of Louisville last night, odds are, they were hear for Rand."

The emcee for the hourlong launch was J.C. Watts, a black former congressman from Oklahoma. One of several prayers was delivered by Rev. Jerry Stevenson, who spoke emotionally about how Paul cared about black Louisville and "came back every year to hear the parents in that community."

He then asked fellow African-Americans to follow his lead, and bolt the Democratic Party. Paul's entire Tuesday program was designed to make his iteration of the "liberty movement" look not just sane, but inevitable. He switched off liberally between the stances that won him support on the left and the ones that sold to the right–term limits, a strict balanced budget amendment to the Constitution–as if the connections between them should have been obvious.

"I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed," said Paul. "I see an America with a restrained IRS that cannot target, cannot harass American citizens for their political or religious beliefs."

Paul had sharpened these themes since 2013, since he started more aggressively reaching out to the black community and to college campuses by finding some points of ideological agreement. He'd always done that; he'd just widened his aperture as his ambitions got larger. State Representative. Jim DeCesare, who represents Paul in the Kentucky legislature, first met him as the head of a watchdog group called Kentucky Taxpayers United. Paul vetted DeCesare, found him worthy, and stayed friends.

"I’ll give you a for instance," said DeCesare in an interview before the rally. "One day I was at a swimming pool he was at. I was reading the Road to Serfdom, and he saw me reading it, and that began a discussion about Hayek and Keynes."

Paul didn't mention Hayek in his announcement speech. He did not mention the Tea Party movement—notably, not even when he quoted the speech he'd made upon winning his 2010 Senate primary. "I have a message, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words," Paul said on Tuesday. "We have come to take our country back." He told the crowd that he'd "said those same words" in 2010, but he left out the second line —"a message from the Tea Party."

Still, Paul found a continuity between his message in 2010 and his national message for 2015. In the Senate race, he'd packaged everything that was wrong or unpopular about the government into an entity called "the Washington machine." On Tuesday, Paul spoke above a lectern, and under a banner, with slogans that asked voters to help him "defeat the Washington machine." In both cases, Paul was telling potential supporters that their grievances could be answered by his form of libertarianism, whether or not they knew it, and whether to not they called it that.

"Too often when Republicans have won we have squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine," Paul said. "That's not who I am."

In 2015, as shown all over the Galt House, Paul was an unexpectedly unifying figure. Most of the Republican candidates for governor showed up for the speech, and were seated stage right, in view of any wide shot. One of those candidates, businessman Matt Bevin, had run against Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell in 2014. Paul had endorsed McConnell and lent him an aide and relative by marriage, Jesse Benton, as a campaign manager. On Tuesday, Benton sat two bleachers away from his old nemesis.

Seated right below Benton were Ron and Carol Paul, the senator's parents. When they arrived in their places, the crowd gave one of the day's biggest ovations. It was dotted with people who still owned and wore swag from Ron Paul's two quixotic Republican presidential campaigns.

"Rand is the closest thing we have to Ron," said Steve Benecek, wearing a T-shirt from the rally Ron Paul held in 2008 as the Republican National Convention happened without him. "If he doesn't get the nomination, I probably won't vote for any Republican."

Benecek, like many attendees of the launch event, showed up with a camera to record all the history he could. And like most attendees, he cheered even when the new candidate seemed to break with the elements of his father's politics that were most toxic with Republican voters.

"Until we name the enemy, we can't win the war," Paul said. "The enemy is radical Islam. You can't get around it. And not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind. We need a national defense robust enough to defend against all attack, modern enough to deter all enemies, and nimble enough to defend our vital interests. But we also need a foreign policy that protects American interests and encourages stability, not chaos."

Most of the crowd applauded several times during that section of the speech. Ron Paul remained still and silent. This wasn't a new stance from Paul, but the candidate had held onto people like Jonathan Reynolds while stepping away from some of the liberty movement's radicalism. So far, he'd shown a remarkable ability to gain momentum from a cause, convince allies that they agreed with him, and thrive even if the cause sputtered. In her introduction of her husband, Kelley Paul made another one of the day's oblique references to the April 15, 2009 Tea Party rally that helped Rand Paul pivot from his father's movement to the one that was relevant in that year of political rebellion.

"He tried to convince me at the time," said Kelley Paul. "His first line of attack was to say: Most people say I have a less than 10 percent chance to win... but when I heard him speak that night in Fountain Square Park that night, and I knew. I just knew."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.