GOP stars steer clear of ranch fight

GOP presidential hopefuls are largely steering clear of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s fight with the federal government.

The showdown, which left armed militia members and feds staring each other down last week, has captivated talk radio and cable news shows, turning Bundy into a conservative cause célèbre.

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Yet Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate, are the only big-name Republicans to have spoken out on the dispute so far.

Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been silent, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have also not commented on Bundy, who has been fighting the federal government in and out of court for more than 20 years over his refusal to pay cattle grazing fees.

All three offices did not respond to calls for this story.

GOP strategists suggested that Bundy’s case is too risky for most candidates eyeing the presidency, particularly given the possibility of armed conflict with federal police.

“The Republican Party’s very sympathetic to Cliven Bundy’s property rights, states’ rights argument,” said strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked on John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “But many Republicans also prize the rule of law above all else. Right or wrong, Bundy had his day in court and lost.”

Matt Mackowiak, who has worked on various Capitol Hill campaigns and as a congressional press secretary, agreed that candidates have good reason to be cautious in the Bundy dispute.

“If you don’t know the person, and you haven’t followed the situation closely, all you do is you look at the situation and see risk,” Mackowiak, who contributes to The Hill's Pundits Blog, said.

Still, Bundy’s arguments and the battle on his ranch feed into a strain of the GOP worried about what it sees as a growing incursion by an increasingly armed federal government.

The federal government is “treating this thing like it’s more serious than the Russian situation or Benghazi or other things,” Mackowiak said.

Paul seemed to be reaching out to this audience with his comments on the dispute, which centered on armed federal agencies.

Paul criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) accusation that Bundy is trying to get away with breaking the law.

“I think there’s an opposite thing to what Harry Reid said, and that’s the federal government shouldn’t violate the law, nor should we have 48 federal agencies carrying weapons and having SWAT teams,” Paul said.

Huckabee, a 2008 GOP presidential candidate, offered similar thoughts when he weighed in on the issue last week in comments in New Hampshire.

“I’m not here to jump in on the middle of whether Cliven Bundy ought to pay the state or pay anybody for the chance for his cows to eat some grass,” Huckabee said. “Here’s what I would suggest: that there is something incredibly wrong when a government believes that some blades of grass that a cow is eating is so an egregious affront to the government of the United States that we would literally put a gun in a citizen’s face and threaten to shoot him over it.”

Paul has a libertarian bent to his politics, and he’s repeatedly taken on issues that make the Bundy fight work better for him than others, O’Connell said.

Paul’s famous Senate filibuster, for example, was on U.S. drones, specifically whether the administration believed it would be legal to use them to kill a citizen on U.S. soil.

But side with Bundy too much and a candidate risks turning off all those voters in the center that they’ll ultimately need to attract in a general election.

“It fits very nicely within the ethos that Rand Paul has,” O’Connell said of the Bundy ranch fight. “But the difficulty that Paul’s going to have in terms of winning the nomination is taking that libertarian, constitutional thinking, and showing how you can govern a nation with it.”

Radio show host Glenn Beck this week criticized the violent tone of the protesters.

“I don’t know who these people are. They all might be great. But here they are … they’re enraged,” Beck said Monday on his show. “We condemn those who use violence. Inciting violence doesn't solve anything.”

Mackowiak also agreed that Republicans don’t want to be seen as supporting someone who so blatantly disregards the law. “You can’t run for president and endorse lawlessness,” he said.