Eyes on the Prize: Rand Paul Expands Message Beyond GOP Ahead of 2016

An adage of former president Richard Nixon was to run to the right in primaries and move to the center in the general election. One of the more-discussed potential 2016 presidential candidates, U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has taken an approach that might be running the axiom in reverse.

Paul’s first speech from the U.S. Senate floor in 2011 famously downplayed compromise. In 2012, he called Paul Ryan’s contentious budget proposal “tepid.” In 2013, with his party filibustering the nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, Paul joined them in blocking the one-time GOP senator before quietly voting to confirm him. During the first half of his first term, Paul stood out as a Republican’s Republican.

Yet, he is using the second half of his term to collect support that has been hard for Republicans to gain in recent years. By doing so, he may be establishing cross-party bona fides prior to the general election — a move opponents are likely to call pre-election pandering.

One tactic Paul has utilized is taking a conservative or libertarian goal and attempt to explain why it is in the best interest of minorities.

Since the beginning of 2013, perhaps earlier, Paul has worked to broaden the party’s coalition by talking about education, immigration, and civil liberties. He has also worked to restore felon voting rights and has criticized — but not wholly rejected — his party’s position on voter ID.

Paul has campaigned for what he terms “Economic Freedom Zones,” his plan for cutting taxes in cities like Detroit to allow businesses to invest in the economy and create jobs. He also recently teamed up with Democratic Senator Cory Booker to oppose minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Yet, his attempts at outreach have drawn criticism, which is perhaps an indication that they are working.

A former Kentucky Democratic state senator wrote an op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal to warn minorities not to “be fooled by Sen. Paul.” However, a recent poll in Kentucky shows that Paul’s efforts might be paying off.

Commissioned by two of Kentucky’s biggest newspapers and two of its biggest news stations, the poll reported that 29 percent of black voters in Kentucky said they would vote for Paul in a hypothetical 2016 race against Hillary Clinton. Considering that Paul received 13 percent of the black vote when he won his Senate seat in 2010, he seems to be making progress with minority voters in the state.

Despite these moves to attract non-traditional Republican voters and public spats with high profile Republicans like Dick Cheney and Rick Perry, Paul is still running well with Republicans at this early stage.

The latest NBC News/Marist poll shows him in a virtual tie in Iowa with Jeb Bush at 12 percent. The same poll found Paul with a one-point lead over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in New Hampshire.

Representing essentially two separate Republican constituencies, no candidate who failed to win either Iowa or New Hampshire went on to win the nomination. Yet, Paul has the distinction of running strongly enough in both that victories in each would practically make the nomination a fait accompli.

Rand Paul is also welcoming former Iowa GOP chairmen to his team.

One of them, Steve Grubbs, has advised 4 previous presidential campaigns, including Bob Dole’s victorious 1996 nomination. Another, A. J. Spiker, who became Iowa’s Republican chairman after elements loyal to Ron Paul won control of the party apparatus, also joined Paul’s political action committee.

While Paul is working to bring in more voters to the Republican fold, these additions also work to assure regular Republican voters that he has not forgotten about them in what he hopes will be a trip to the White House.