While all eyes are on Hillary Clinton’s book tour lately, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has been giving a clearer picture of what his own potential 2016 presidential run might look like.
Polls show the GOP primaries are as wide open as the Democratic primary is dominated by Clinton’s frontrunner status. A Quinnipiac poll released on Tuesday found Paul leads the GOP field among an intensely divided Republican electorate: 11% of voters said they backed him, a statistically insignificant margin over Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who each garnered 10% support. Paul is openly exploring a presidential bid and his political action committee recently hired Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign manager Mike Biundo to manage its operations in New England, including the critical primary state New Hampshire.
Paul is one of the most celebrated members of the tea party class of 2010 and has cultivated a warm relationship with the conservative grassroots. But in recent weeks, he’s gone out of his way to show how his unorthodox politics might distinguish him from the field in ways that could potentially broaden his appeal to non-traditional groups for a Republican.
Paul isn’t a moderate by any stretch of the imagination, but his intense devotion to the philosophy of libertarianism at home and non-interventionism abroad popularized by his father, former congressman Ron Paul, has led him to unconventional places for a member of the GOP.
This week, Paul teamed up with Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey to introduce the REDEEM Act, a bill that would provide opportunities for low-level criminals to expunge or seal their record in order to help prevent them being denied employment due to background checks. He said the goal was to break a “cycle of poverty and incarceration” in which young people become ensnared in the justice system early and then are unable to rehabilitate themselves by finding work.
Paul has also embarked on a campaign to restore voting rights to felons, an issue championed by civil rights groups who argue current policies disenfranchise minorities who are disproportionally targeted by the law for non-violent offenses. Paul has explicitly argued that by adopting the issue, the GOP could help rebuild its relationship with African-American voters, 93% of who voted for President Obama in 2012, according to exit polls. He’s also delicately pushed back against the GOP’s widespread support for more restrictions on voting rights in order to combat alleged electoral fraud, which many black voters see as a false pretext for making voting more difficult for minorities.
On foreign policy, the ongoing crisis in Iraq has given Paul one of his best opportunities to lay out his foreign policy vision, which would almost certainly be the most contentious part of his platform in a GOP presidential primary. In a series of high-profile media appearances, Paul went toe-to-toe with Vice President Dick Cheney, arguing that the Iraq War was a mistake and that calls for greater military intervention in Syria and Iraq would be counterproductive.
While the GOP’s foreign policy is very much in flux after the hawkish consensus it enjoyed under President Bush, Paul’s aggressive denunciation of the 2003 invasion represents the farthest any of the likely 2016 field has gone in distancing themselves from that era. It’s a position that could plausibly build support outside the GOP base: an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found that an overwhelming 71% of Americans believe the second Iraq War was “not worth it.”
On civil rights, Paul has been one of the most aggressive critics in the Senate of NSA spying, an issue that still looms large as information leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden continues to generate new reports.
Paul has a long list of weaknesses that could make his efforts to reach out to non-GOP voters futile, especially African-Americans. The same libertarian philosophy that led him to his positions on criminal justice reform has also led him to criticize the 1964 Civil Rights Act for forcing businesses to desegregate and to hire and defend a neo-Confederate staffer and co-author who celebrated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
His stance on the NSA and Iraq might give him an opportunity to challenge a Democrat like Clinton from the left, but his twin calls for lower taxes for the rich and sweeping cuts to government services could push moderates away as well. Then there was his role in engineering an unpopular government shutdown with Senator Ted Cruz.
But the last few months have given Paul perhaps his best opportunity to pitch voters on his positions that might play well outside the core GOP. Will this be the Paul that shows up next year for his first Republican debate?