Rand Paul pauses during his public address at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Institute of Politics in Cambridge, Mass, Apr. 25, 2014.
Stephan Savoia/AP

Rand Paul tests youth appeal at Harvard University

Rand Paul’s road to 2016 took him through Boston to tap two key groups he’ll need if he runs for the GOP’s presidential nomination: support from the party’s establishment donors and a fresh source of young voters.

The Kentucky senator tested his brand of “libertarian twist” Friday during with an event before students at Harvard’s Institute of Politics in Cambridge, Mass. Joking that Republicans likely accounted for only 5-to-10% of the audience, Paul found himself outside of his usual element: a posh, ivy-league setting compared to the grassroots base he’s built from the right-wing’s establishment outsiders.

But if his northeast visit wasn’t proof enough, Paul is clearly trying to bridge those two worlds. Though he hasn’t officially announced a 2016 presidential bid, the senator has said he is very seriously considering his options. Boosting that image, Paul reportedly met earlier Friday with the architects and top donors for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who would prove crucial in building inroads with the party establishment.

So far, Paul has successfully tapped into the network of libertarian followers loyal to his father, a former Texas congressman and failed presidential candidate. While typically associated with the tea party wing of the Republican Party, his profile is starting to extend beyond grassroots circles to the party’s establishment as a likely presidential candidate down the road.

Trey Greyson, director at the university’s Institute of Politics and, coincidentally, the man Paul beat to the Senate by a near landslide in 2010, introduced Paul as the party’s best shot at grabbing young people. Paul is “without question the Republican who best connects with millennial voters across the country,” Greyson said, noting the “shellacking” Paul gave him when they met head-to-head in the Senate election.

Paul has frequently prodded Republican elites to make the party more inclusive – particularly to women and minorities. And though he voted against the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill last year, Paul didn’t rule out the possibility that Congress could pass at least something this year.

“The Republican Party will adapt, evolve or die,” Paul said Friday. “The Republican Party needs to look like the rest of America in order to have a chance.”

Paul still has a ways to go in appealing to a larger swath of more traditional conservatives. Many were turned off by the Kentucky senator’s comments on abortion this week when he said wouldn’t make efforts to dismantle Roe v. Wade anytime soon. Though his comments were largely in line with the position he’s always held on abortion – he’s against it and believes life begins at conception – social conservatives were furious to hear the high-profile Republican wouldn’t make bans on abortion a priority.

Paul nudged back Friday, saying sometimes the debate “gets dumbed down too much that we’re in one extreme or the other.”

“I think there may well could be incremental change and that’s most likely to happen,” he added.

The Kentucky senator managed to avoid any mention of Cliven Bundy, the rancher caught illegally free-loading in letting his cattle graze on federal land for the better part of two decades. Paul was one of the first, and certainly one of the most prominent, to jump behind Bundy’s cause against government overreach amid an armed stand-off with the Bureau of Land Management. Paul however quickly exchanged his tacit endorsement of Bundy’s cause with a full-throated condemnation after a report in The New York Times captured Bundy spouting a litany of racist comments.

Paul Friday instead steered a libertarian pitch toward the crowd of mostly young people with a clear intent to hook millennials on issues that don’t clearly fall on one side of the aisle, and then reel them in on other conservative issues.

“I think a change will come out, or we’ll lose,” Paul said of the Republican Party. “One of the two.”

Rand Paul

Rand Paul tests youth appeal at Harvard University