Rand Paul joins 2016 presidential conversation with talking filibuster

Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) decision to mount a rare talking filibuster over President Obama’s drone strike policy has — for the moment — propelled the Kentucky lawmaker to the forefront of the 2016 Republican presidential conversation.

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The challenge now facing the first-term senator, say GOP operatives, is finding a way to stay there.

“These are the types of events that make you a player, so that in three years you’ve laid the groundwork and [it’s] not just assumed you’re going to be a fringe Libertarian and Tea Party-only candidate,” said David Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens’ United.

Until now, Paul has been best known outside Washington as the cut-from-the-same cloth son of former Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian champion and two-time Republican presidential candidate.

But over 13 hours on Wednesday and early Thursday, Paul earned the national spotlight in his own right — winning new legitimacy among some establishment Republicans and exciting grassroots conservatives who’ve been eager for a leader to stand up to President Obama.

“I think he's certainly bought himself some credibility, but it’s just what he does going forward and how he plays his cards that matters now,” said GOP consultant Ford O’Connell, who believes Paul’s next steps may be his most important.

“He's going to have to show depth on other issues, and relate how [his] libertarian thinking meshes with the practical, to build on this.”

Paul’s allies believe the filibuster was not only a matter of principle for the senator, but a deliberate move aimed at boosting his national profile and winning him needed credibility with party insiders.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus gave the effort his blessing with a tweet calling for “all Republican U.S. Senators” to “go to the floor and help out Rand Paul.”

And the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised funds off the filibuster, bringing in more than $75,00 and receiving over 43,000 Facebook likes on its campaign, largely before 9 a.m. Thursday.

Rising GOP stars Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), widely considered an early favorite for the 2016 Republican nomination, and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) both joined the filibuster.

Paul, who launched his Capitol Hill career by overcoming staunch opposition from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, saw his fellow Kentuckian praise the junior senator’s “tenacity” and “conviction.”

Supporters say Paul was keenly aware of the impact his filibuster might have on his own political ambitions, with one former Paul aide telling The Hill that the senator is, at this point, likely to run in 2016.

“Rand is positioning himself. He's going do this. He's going to take a run at it until he wins or until it's no longer realistic,” the former aide said.

“He's going to continue to make deliberate, shrewd decisions as he marches forward. As long as there appears a realistic path forward to the White House, he's going to keep moving forward.”

Paul told Politico he was "seriously" considering running in 2016. 

Paul’s marathon protest was not only topical — coming at a time when Congress is scrutinizing the administration’s legal justification for the use of drones — but timely.

The filibuster gave conservatives a reason to cheer after their devastation over Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama last November, and amid continued frustration over the string of legislative defeats congressional Republicans have suffered in the election’s wake.

The outpouring of support following Paul’s filibuster comes just as presidential hopefuls begin to position themselves for a run.

The filibuster is certain to be a focus of conversation when delegates gather in Washington, D.C., next week for the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, one the largest annual gatherings of conservatives.

CPAC is considered a traditional testing ground for potential White House contenders, and its presidential straw poll offers hopefuls the opportunity to gauge support among one wing of the Republican Party.

Paul’s father won the CPAC straw poll two years in a row.

Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Romney during his presidential campaign, said the CPAC conference — where Paul will be a featured speaker — will help keep the Kentucky senator at the center of Republican attention.

“There are going to be a lot more people than there were yesterday going to CPAC who will want to get their picture taken with Paul, who will want to shake his hand. There will be a lot more people than there were yesterday saying, ‘Hey, I hope you run in 2016,’ as a result of his work over the last 48 hours,” Madden said.

Even prior to Paul’s filibuster, his supporters had launched an effort to help him win this year’s CPAC straw poll.

Other speakers at the conference include Rubio, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, all potential 2016 candidates.

While the filibuster dominated the news cycle this week, Paul will need to build on the current attention if he hopes to rival better-known would-be candidates like Rubio and Bush, both of whom enjoy support from a broader cross section of Republicans.

But Bossie said GOP voters who crave a leader who stands on principle — and who often questioned Romney’s conservative bonafides — are more likely to view Paul as one of their own.

“Post the 2012 general election debacle, with a nominee who was not a conservative and who lost a race that was winnable … the Republican institutional voters, as well as the conservative movement within the Republican Party, are desperately looking for principled leadership,” said Bossie.

“That is something that has been lacking, and that’s where his filibuster will make him stand out.”

Bossie noted Paul has already taken “methodical” steps to differentiate himself from his father, “in order to be taken seriously by establishment Republicans.”

Paul is known for a willingness to play the inside political game that his father eschewed.

He backed Romney after he won the nomination, and has joined with his onetime critic, McConnell, to get legislation passed.

The younger Paul is also, his supporters say, a better campaigner than his father — more able to appeal to all generations and supporters from varied wings of the Republican party.

Paul will also likely rely on the campaign infrastructure his dad build for his failed 2012 campaign — giving him an organizational foundation heading toward 2016.

Jesse Benton, Ron Paul’s political director for his presidential bid, said Rand Paul has a chance to not only re-establish the coalition of voters that supported his father in 2012, but to expand upon that base.

“It's going to take work, but I believe that Rand can hold onto the vast majority of his dad's coalition and then bring in a whole different aspect of the party,” said Benton.

But Paul also faces pitfalls.

His brand of libertarianism doesn’t play well among national security Republicans: Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) blasted the filibuster.

McCain accused Paul of using the filibuster to "fire up impressionable libertarian kids."

McCain and Graham’s complaints notwithstanding, Paul’s filibuster energized nascent supporters who may not have previously been contemplating his 2016 prospects.

Anthony Astolfi, co-founder of Human Action, a pro-Rand Paul PAC, said his group’s Facebook page “doubled in likes” during the filibuster.

The number of interested supporters grew exponentially after the filibuster started to generate widespread media attention, he said.

“The volume really picked up,” he said. “We've already given away thousands of stickers. [Before the filibuster], we weren’t getting thousands of signups in a single day or an hour span.”