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How Rand Paul went from 'most interesting man in politics' to also-ran

The Kentucky senator was not short on strategic intent, but in the primaries, timing is everything.

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    Republican presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, waits for an interview during a campaign event at the University of Iowa, Sunday, in Iowa City, Iowa.
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Rand Paul began the 2016 presidential election cycle as “The Most Interesting Man in Politics,” per a Time Magazine cover story. His libertarian ideals and relaxed style were supposed to engage young and minority voters and expand the demographic reach of the Republican Party.

But on Wednesday Senator Paul dropped out of the race, suspending his campaign following a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. He’ll now focus on winning reelection to his Kentucky Senate seat, itself not a sure thing.

What happened? How did “interesting” turn into “also-ran”?

Paul peaked too soon, for one thing. His campaign seemed best suited for the political environment of 2013. He burst from the blocks early, becoming the first Republican hopeful to set up networks in all 50 states, and drawing lots of early press coverage for his libertarian views and political heritage (Ron Paul, his dad, ran in 2008 and 2012). By the time the race began in earnest, however, the media had moved on to other stories. Paul was no longer the fresh, interesting face.

He was elbowed aside, for another. He’d planned on running as the Constitution-loving liberty candidate, the one who talked the most about America’s founding ideals. Then Donald Trump came along and sucked up media attention like a giant vacuum. Ted Cruz maneuvered himself into the lane alongside Paul, pushing himself as a “liberty” candidate and tea party favorite.

Then came Paris and San Bernardino. Terror attacks made Paul’s non-interventionist views on foreign policy and his vehement opposition to mass surveillance a bad fit for Republican voters. The rise of the Islamic State was already resurrecting hawkishness in the party, and images of the aftermath of violence only accelerated that change. In December, a Pew survey asked voters which was their greatest worry: that anti-terror policies impinged on civil liberties, or didn’t go far enough to protect the country. Seventy-one percent of Republicans chose the second option and said they weren’t tough enough.

Finally, Paul’s attempts to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party did not pay off. He wooed minorities with his opposition to mass incarceration policies and his support for policy reform. He appealed to younger voters with criticism of federal involvement in drug enforcement and talk of his 10-hour-plus filibuster against National Security Agency surveillance activities.

But the Kentucky lawmaker found it’s hard to win a GOP primary by addressing groups who are Democrats, generally speaking. You get sympathy and applause but no votes. He needed existing Republicans to rally to his cause, instead. They didn’t.

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