Has Rand Paul stalled?

A year ago, Rand Paul, the libertarian-minded senator from Kentucky, was among the leading potential candidates in the GOP presidential race, topping at least three national polls in spring and early summer.

{mosads}Now, he is stuck in seventh place in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national average, with less than 6 percent support.

The Kentuckian’s campaign, once the subject of intense media interest, is struggling for attention, and faces the danger that it could fizzle.

“There are so many new entrants into this sweepstake that I think he has been overshadowed by all the attention given to every new declaration of candidacy,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “I think he, and his message, are getting lost — and it shows the dangers of a too-early announcement.”

One dynamic of the race since Paul announced his candidacy on April 7 is particularly stark. Back then, most pollsters were not even including Donald Trump’s name on the menu of choices for Republican voters. The one poll that had done so, from Fox News, had given the mogul 3 percent support.

Now Trump sits atop the field with an 18.2 percent RCP average.

Paul’s standing in the first states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, is better than in the national polls, but not strong enough to suggest he will mount a serious challenge to the frontrunners.

Paul is fourth in the RCP average in New Hampshire, behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. In Iowa, he is tied for third with Trump, behind Walker and Bush. Walker’s support is more than twice as high as Paul’s.

The issue for candidates like Paul — and others — is not just Trump’s poll ratings. The businessman is so adept at creating controversy that he denies all but the very biggest candidates the spotlight.

“Donald Trump is taking all the oxygen out of the debate,” said David Winston, a longtime Republican strategist and pollster. “That is a short-term dynamic, but when people aren’t talking about your ideas, that is a challenge.”

Still, Winston stressed that this did not mean all was lost for Paul or for other candidates who are now starved of attention. The first GOP debate, set for Cleveland on Aug. 6, provides an opportunity for them to break through — and for Trump to stumble of his own accord or be sidelined by rivals.

Paul is also more adept than some others at garnering media attention himself. He has proven this in the past, particularly in his use of filibusters to protest Obama administration policies on national security. Last week alone, he pushed an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood and illustrated his desire to replace the existing tax code with a video in which he attacked the current version with a chainsaw, fire and a wood chipper.

Meanwhile, his campaign is pushing back against the perception that he is anything less than a leading candidate.

“Recent polls continue to show Rand Paul in the top tier,” Sergio Gor, a spokesman for the Paul campaign told The Hill. “A new Economist poll in the last couple weeks had Rand in second place behind only Trump, and the RealClearPolitics average of polls show Rand in third and fourth place in Iowa and New Hampshire ahead of other Republicans like [Sen. Marco] Rubio, [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie and [Sen. Ted] Cruz.”

Gor also insisted that Paul had “laid out the boldest proposals” of any candidate, including a flat tax.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Paul can expand on the constituency that backed his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), in his two most recent presidential runs, in 2008 and 2012. 

Ron Paul came second in the 2012 New Hampshire primary with 23 percent support and third in Iowa with 22 percent. Either of those results would be at the very high-end of expectations for his son at the moment.

“It’s just gone kinda quiet,” said Jamie Burnett, a longtime GOP strategist in New Hampshire, referring to chatter about Paul in the state. “It’s just odd but people aren’t talking about Rand Paul — or Ted Cruz — right now.”

Burnett, who is not affiliated with any campaign but who personally favors Bush, added that he was always skeptical that Rand Paul could really pull together much more support than Ron Paul.

“I’ve always believed that … his support is capped; that there was a ceiling to it,” he said. “He was going to have a really hard time broadening his appeal where he could peel off enough mainstream conservatives.”

The news agenda, many people believe, has also not done Paul any favors. Over the past year, foreign policy issues such as the rise of ISIS and the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have become more prominent. Paul, who is not so isolationist as his father but nonetheless favors a markedly restrained foreign policy, has problems with the base in that regard.

“He has got a very different view that is clearly, within the party, controversial,” said Winston. “He is going to have to work through an explanation of how his policies will address terrorism, ISIS, Iran possibly getting a nuclear weapon. That is one of the challenges he faces.”

Still, Paul could gain steam if other candidates falter. And even some observers unaffiliated with his campaign warn that it’s much too early to write him off.

“Maybe some people expected more out of a Rand Paul campaign — that it was going to be bigger, more flamboyant,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Republican Party of Iowa. “But these are the months when campaigns need to be on the ground, working and organizing — and sometimes that doesn’t get a lot of headlines. It’s clear to me that his campaign is functioning very well in Iowa.”

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