LIVONIA, Mich. — Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWe can put America first by preventing public health disasters Conservative activists want action from Trump McConnell: 'Big challenge' to pass ObamaCare repeal in Senate MORE has been the biggest draw for Republicans in the midterm election campaign, proving beyond a doubt that he’s a serious contender for the White House in 2016.
Paul has traveled to 32 states in the 2014 cycle so far, keeping a jam-packed campaign schedule that, last week, included stops in Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, New York and Georgia.
The senator noted his time on the road, as he stood Wednesday before a crowd of about 50 Republican volunteers in a suburban Detroit field office.
"As I've traveled around the country I think the wind is at our back. I've been to 32 different states. People do want a change," he told in the crowd in a voice made raw by dozens of stump speeches.
The day before the Michigan visit, Paul had spent the day campaigning in Kansas for Sen. Pat RobertsPat RobertsPicking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups IRS chief says he's committed to finishing his term Overnight Finance: CBO predicts budget deficits, debt to hit new highs in 30 years | Meet Trump’s Ms. Fix-It | Trump, Mnuchin talk tax reform | Mexico's B windfall MORE (R-Kan.), who’s locked in a tough reelection fight.
He plans to visit Pennsylvania on Friday before spending the weekend and early next week in Kentucky campaigning with the embattled incumbent who has needed his help the most: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellJuan Williams: Trump's 100 days wound GOP Judd Gregg: Trump gets his sea legs This week: Congress returns to government shutdown fight MORE (R-Ky.).
The midterm push has allowed Paul to barnstorm the country, making connections along the way that could serve as a springboard to a presidential run in 2016.
Perhaps even more critically, Paul’s travels have demonstrated he has wide appeal in the GOP — something that was in doubt earlier this year, when some party strategists dismissed him as a fringe candidate in the mold of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R).
"Everybody wants him. He’s in not just your conservative states; they want him in swing states. Everybody wants Rand there. He can go to Kansas and fire up the base, or he can go to New Hampshire and fire up the independents," said Doug Stafford, executive director of Paul’s RAND PAC.
Paul’s leadership PAC this week launched a six-figure TV buy in Kansas to support Roberts. It will also air spots in Kentucky, New Hampshire, Iowa and North Carolina.
Paul is campaigning hard for Republican candidates but clearly has his eye on 2016 as well.
Iowa and New Hampshire, where he’s focused a lot of attention this year, are the first two contests of the Republican presidential primary.
He has used his campaign appearances around the country to address concerns that the Dick Cheney wing of the Republican Party has with his foreign policy views. Like his father before him, Paul expresses strong skepticism about foreign military engagement, but he’s turned out to be more of a hawk than his dad.
Speaking at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Rochester, Mich., which local officials bill as the nation’s oldest, Paul declared he would support military strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though he cautioned that the United States should proceed carefully.
The ad his PAC aired in Kansas promoted Paul’s foreign policy outlook by noting that he and Roberts — the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee — agree on cutting off aid to countries such as Pakistan.
Critically for Paul, this election year has shown that his libertarian strain of Republicanism resonates with a broad swathe of the electorate, with campaigns using him to mobilize independents, libertarians and the conservative base.
The senator’s ability to bring more people into the Republican tent could help him convince party leaders and major donors to back a presidential bid, should he choose to launch one.
"His focus is on 2014, but will that help him should he choose to go nationally? The idea that so many people from different parts of the party want to have him out there when they're running for election should send a message. There's pretty broad appeal across the party and among independents," Stafford said.
The Chamber of Commerce has launched a round of ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, Alaska and North Carolina to reach out to swing voters. The added exposure in Iowa and New Hampshire is an especially nice bonus for Paul’s White House ambitions.
“In a number of races, the Chamber is focused on the independent swing vote, and we think Sen. Paul is well positioned to deliver a message that appeals to them,” said Blair Latoff Holmes, a spokeswoman for the Chamber. “These ads also fit into our theme this year of using credible messengers in target races, particularly to help break through the clutter and carry the free enterprise message.”
The Senate race in Michigan has fallen off the map for Republicans, as Democratic candidate Gary Peters has built an 8-to-15-percentage-point lead over Land. But Michigan is an important early primary state in 2016, and if Paul can’t swing the outcome of next week’s election, he could still reap benefits in two years’ time.
Other Republican White House contenders, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanPelosi: 'Of course' Dems can be against abortion Five fights for Trump’s first year Sunday shows preview: Trump stares down 100-day mark MORE and Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzWeek ahead in tech: Trump's antitrust pick heads before Senate Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's FDA pick Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE have traveled to Michigan this year, according to Bobby Schostak, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
“Michigan is a bellwether state. When it comes to the primary season, it’s a state that all these guys got to stop in and check in with,” he said. “Our primary is going to be early in March, so we’re going to be a difference maker.”
Schostak predicted Paul would be a force in 2016.
“Rand Paul’s got a great conservative message, and the base of our party relates to it very well. He’ll be a very strong candidate if he’s on the ballot,” he said.
The biggest issues in Michigan are jobs, education and healthcare, and Paul addressed each of them during his visit to Detroit.
At an informal discussion with voters in Sherwood Forest, a predominantly middle-class African-American enclave, Paul talked about the need to give charter schools more freedom to expand, making participation in ObamaCare voluntary and setting up personal health savings accounts. He also discussed turning all of Detroit into an economic enterprise zone with special tax breaks.
Paul said his visit in the final week to a state that is no longer in the thick of the battle for control of the Senate is all about showing “the Republican Party will compete for every vote, including every African-American vote, every vote in Detroit.”
“We want to win,” he said of his leadership PAC and its ambitions for the party.
“We have a unique perspective sometimes. In Kansas, that’s where we purchased most of our ads, We wanted to show that Pat Roberts and I were aligned on not wanting to send money to countries that are burning our flag and appear to hate us,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues want to tell voters they “realize there are needs here at home that need to be met.”