Herald-Leader Political Writer
In late February, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul played golf with Donald Trump at Trump’s course in Palm Beach. Trump shot par and walked away with the win.
That’s about the only thing that hasn’t gone Paul’s way in 2014 as he continues to eye a run for the White House in 2016.
More than a year removed from the 13-hour filibuster that sent his star rising and less than a year before Paul could announce that he is running for president, Kentucky’s junior senator is winning over skeptics daily.
What once seemed like a parlor game punchline is growing more realistic by the day: Rand Paul could very well win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The road map Paul and his team put together — growing his brand outside of Tea Party voters, making inroads with establishment Republican donors, and wooing millennials — appears to be on track.
Black leaders are increasingly inviting Paul to speak and listen to their constituents, top donors are sitting down for lunch with the Tea Party darling — nearly matching what Paul is raising from his strong base of small-dollar donors — and a couple thousand millennials made sure Paul walked away from last weekend’s CPAC convention with his second straight straw-poll win.
Last year’s plagiarism scandal feels like old news, especially in light of the scandal that has hamstrung New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and the national media, long skeptical that the son of perennial candidate and former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul could make a serious run for president, is now calling him the frontrunner.
It’s difficult to overstate, in terms of importance with early Republican primary voters and the national media, just how huge it was a couple weeks ago when the banner headline on The Drudge Report read “leader of the pack” beneath a picture of Paul.
Perhaps the most telling proof of Rand’s recent roll is watching his would-be opponents try to use the situation in Ukraine to paint Paul as an isolationist with foreign policy views similar to his father.
Paul has tried to use the criticisms to his favor, calling out his rivals for playing politics and trying to establish himself as far more reasonable on foreign policy than his enemies would have folks believe.
Paul’s good fortune even appears to extend to Frankfort.
Sure, the bill that state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, filed last week seeking to clarify that Paul can run for both the presidency and re-election to the Senate in 2016 appears doomed. But even if it fails, Thayer’s bill does two things for Paul: It could help improve his standing in court when, or let’s say if, his effort to get on the ballot twice is challenged. And perhaps more importantly, it lets Paul see early on who is with him and who’s not.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his top aides worked the phones hard last week, rustling up support for Thayer’s effort. Any Republicans who hope to derail Paul’s efforts are running out of cover, and the bill’s path through Frankfort could reveal or even pacify them.
By just about every measure, Paul is winning 2014.
He’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Next week, Paul will travel to California for meetings and fundraisers with Silicon Valley’s top players, a spot and industry that Paul’s friends and allies believe could provide a big pay-off if he runs for president.
Lexington businessman Nate Morris, Paul’s friend and informal advisor, said Paul is a natural fit with Silicon Valley and his visit is in part about “laying the foundation and building relationships that can really serve to really build financial infrastructure that can launch a presidential campaign and beyond.”
Morris, a Republican fundraiser and co-founder of Rubicon Global, said Paul will continue to hammer home in coming months that a successful Republican presidential campaign in 2016 “has to be a transformational campaign, transformational outreach and a reinvention of our party and our brand.”
“He’s going to be very diligent about continuing to challenge the status quo and go to places where Republicans typically don’t go,” Morris said.
Of course, as any Kentucky basketball fan will tell you, preseason No. 1 rankings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Paul has shown a remarkable ability to bounce back from scandal, but with every publication that names him the frontrunner, the bullseye on Paul’s back gets bigger and the lights get brighter.
While Paul has joked that the label of frontrunner sounds “unlucky,” Morris dismissed the comparison to the Kentucky Wildcats falling on hard times after a top pre-season ranking.
“Don’t forget about the ’95-’96 team,” Morris said of the Rick Pitino-led national champions that started the season on top. “Don’t forget that outlier. Sometimes it does happen.”
Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman’s observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.