Rand Paul: GOP party leader or destined for Ron Paul backwater?

Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster pushed him into the national political spotlight. But can he broaden his exposure and base of support beyond what his father, Rep. Ron Paul, was able to achieve?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky is questioned by reporters as he leaves a GOP policy meeting on Capitol Hill Thursday. Paul is a freshman senator who challenged the Republican Party's establishment to win his seat in 2010 and now commands attention as a defender of limited government.

President Obama made nice with a number of significant Republicans this past week, wining and dining them as part of his new charm offensive with the GOP.

But the top political newsmaker of the week was not included in that group, nor was he invited to join any of the TV news blabfests Sunday – Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky.

Why is that, and what does it indicate about Senator Paul’s future?

Does he even have a future beyond the libertarian/tea party corner of American politics? That’s the place where his father, retired congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul (R) of Texas, drew an enthusiastic (although minority) following, making it tougher for more establishment candidates like Mitt Romney to win their party’s nomination and annoying fellow Republicans generally.

Some senior Republican senators did find the younger Mr. Paul annoying when he held up Senate business for 13 hours, filibustering the nomination of John Brennan to be director of the CIA. It was not personal, he had said, but a point of principle: The need for the Obama administration to concede that targeting suspected American terrorists on US soil without due process would be unconstitutional.

Sen. John McCain accused Paul of a “political stunt,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham called the junior senator from Kentucky “ill-informed.”

Perhaps, but it’s also worth noting that although Americans generally approve of drone attacks on terrorists abroad, most agree with Paul on his key point about targeting US citizens at home.

Given the low regard with which most of those polled hold Congress – Mr. Obama is dropping in some polls, too – does this indicate an opening for Paul among the younger, fresher generation of GOP politicians, some of whom spelled him during his filibuster?

People certainly paid attention to the maverick senator. More than a million tweets were sent during his filibuster – nearly as many as during Obama’s State of the Union address, Twitter reported on its government blog.

One in particular who paid attention is Mo Elleithee, faculty member at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute and a Democratic political consultant who worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008.

“The GOP's shellacking in 2012 has thrust a new generation of Republicans – including leaders like Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Govs. Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie – into the spotlight,” he writes in a column for CNN. “But it's Paul who has become the clearest voice of the new guard in the Republican Party. And he is effectively driving the entire GOP message right now.”

“Paul has proven that he has the ability to punch his message through in a way that no one else in the Republican Party can,” Mr. Elleithee writes. “He's clear. Whether or not you agree with him (and I rarely do), you know where he stands. He articulates his message more clearly than most people in Washington. He's principled. He's more ideologically consistent than many people in Washington (though admittedly, that's not the highest of bars these days). He's willing to take on leaders of both parties to make a point.”

Of course, Democrats would love to see the younger Paul act as gadfly to the GOP – particularly during the jockeying for position as the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

But Republican professionals and activists are taking note as well.

Chris Cillizza, who writes a Washington Post political column, talked to a bunch of them about Paul. Here’s a sampling of their comments:

New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Dave Carney: “The filibuster is the single largest leap I can recall from one act…. The old guard’s gratuitous and meaningless tantrum attack the next day further solidified [Paul’s] sole position as leader of the new right.”

Phil Musser, a former senior adviser to Tim Pawlenty: “Somewhat surprisingly, and as the events of the week demonstrated, Rand Paul has shown the ability to connect with mainstream political and thought leaders as well…. That’s a key distinction that could make a candidacy more serious, and was something his dad was never able to do.”

Jesse Benton, who managed Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential bid and is now doing the same for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in 2014: “He has the ability to greatly broaden his Dad’s coalition and reach traditional Republicans and evangelicals in a way his Dad could not.”

Virginia-based GOP senior strategist Chris LaCivita: “Rand Paul is more than capable of providing a top-tier challenge in 2016…. His understanding of the issues and where they intersect with the basic foundations of liberty inspire legions of followers.”

Following Obama’s State of the Union address in January, Rand Paul gave the official tea party response, sponsored by the Tea Party Express. It was as much a counterpoint to Senator Rubio’s official Republican response (remembered mostly for Rubio’s desperate lunge for a water bottle) as it was to Obama.

The question is, can he broaden his exposure and base of support?

On CNN's "State of the Union” Sunday, House Republican whip Kevin McCarthy said of Paul’s filibuster, “I think those Republicans who criticized him were wrong.”

Regarding Paul’s point about protecting civil liberties at a time when drones are becoming ubiquitous, Representative McCarthy said, "That's a core belief of Republicans, and I think if we embrace a little more of our libertarian views, we'll go further."

Which is why political operatives, mainstream Republicans, and – increasingly – the voting public are keeping an eye on Rand Paul.

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