Not waiting: Rand Paul is already in campaign mode
© Greg Nash

Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Democratic congressman calls for study of effects of sex-trafficking law McConnell says he's 'honored' to be WholeFoods Magazine's 2019 'Person of the Year' MORE is in full-blown campaign mode.

While most potential GOP contenders’ early efforts are taking place behind closed doors with donors and top strategists, the Kentucky senator is engaged in the kind of retail politicking that won’t become commonplace until the candidates officially announce their intentions later this year.

ADVERTISEMENT

This week, Paul ditched his congressional colleagues at their annual GOP retreat in Hershey, Pa., in favor of a trip to New Hampshire, the site of the first-in-the-nation primary a year from now, along with Nevada and Arizona, other early-voting states. 

“This should not be viewed as anything other than a full-blown campaign trip,” former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen said of the senator’s Wednesday visit. 

Paul’s jam-packed schedule included meetings with business leaders, political leaders and activists, an event with Second Amendment supporters, and a Q&A on Common Core education standards.

Paul has been to the Granite State a handful of times over the last year and hired Michael Biundo, a well-renowned operative in the state, to manage his operations there.

“He has been by far the most active candidate on the ground here,” said former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg (R), also a columnist with The Hill.  

Cullen, who is writing a book on the history of the New Hampshire primary, said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) hasn’t made a political visit to the state since 2000, when he appeared on behalf of his brother, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Paul will next travel to Arizona on Thursday before spending Friday and Saturday in Nevada, where he’ll host an event at a diner in Las Vegas. The two Western states don’t typically get as much attention from candidates in the early going, but both states vote early and are hotbeds of wealthy Republican donors.

“He’s had a national focus from day one,” Cullen said.

But it’s not just on the ground that Paul’s campaign is taking shape.

Late Tuesday, the Paul team announced it had hired Chip Englander to serve as a political adviser; he is expected to move into the role of campaign manager once Paul officially launches his bid for the White House. So far, Walker is the only other candidate to make a similar hire.

“Paul has been more outwardly public about his intentions,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “We know more about what his campaign will look like than anyone else.”

Paul’s pick for campaign manager is, in itself, revealing.

Englander is a Washington outsider — at only 33, he managed Gov. Bruce Rauner’s (R-Ill.) successful 2014 campaign against incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn (D). Rauner’s victory in deep blue Illinois was among the GOP’s most impressive pick-ups in the 2014 cycle.

Englander orchestrated the kind of grassroots effort that Paul’s father was famous for, and Rauner’s message was an inclusive one aimed at growing the party. That’s something Paul has talked about at length as a critical component to Republican success going forward.

“[The Rauner campaign] put a fortune into their grassroots efforts,” said Chris Robling, a Republican strategist in Illinois. “They opened offices in something like 50 of Illinois’s 100 counties, in places that hadn’t seen a Republican storefront in a generation.”

Rauner is a social conservative, but Robling said his campaign reached out to independent voters in an effort to keep that from distracting from his broader message.

“There was no barrier there just because of the social issues,” he said. “There was nothing that prevented a gay Chicagoan, an immigrant, someone who is pro-choice, or whoever from being deflected before even getting to hear Rauner’s message. I think that’s something Rand Paul will be looking to do.”

Some conservatives are skeptical of Paul, particularly on the foreign policy front, so getting beyond that initial hurdle and reaching new voters with his libertarian message will be critical to his success.

Of course, strategists note that it’s early, and any gains Paul is making from getting the early jump are negligible. There’s still plenty of time for the other candidates to staff up and hit the road.

But Paul has shown an early flair for leaving the pack and creating his own blueprint.

“He’s not going to run a traditional presidential campaign,” Mackowiak said. “He wants it to be a reflection of his unique brand.”