Though speculation and prognostication about the presidential race may seem all-consuming to those of us who obsess over such things, in fact most voters have barely begun to pay attention to the 2014 election, let alone 2016. While some of us have spent hours considering the flaws and advantages of all the potential candidates, many of our friends and family have yet take that step. In fact, beyond two or three of the most well-known candidates in each party, many probably don’t even know the names of those who (might) be running for president.
It’s to the credit of Sen. Rand Paul — who spoke at this year’s Maine Republican state convention — that he’s likely in that tier of candidates. Moreover, he’s known to voters not from his previous failed attempts, but because he’s actually a viable candidate. Despite the wishes of his ardent supporters, this is a level that his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, never quite managed to reach, for a variety of reasons. Ron Paul was never a serious threat to win the nomination; his son is a top contender whom everyone, whether they like him or not, is taking seriously.
The differences between the two were on full display in Bangor this weekend. In listening to his speech, watching the reaction of the crowd, and speaking to fellow delegates, it’s clear Sen. Paul has already greatly widened his support beyond his father’s base. Many delegates who were not supporters of his father were either already supporting him or at least impressed enough to give him a chance (even for politicos, it’s pretty early to be committing oneself in 2016).
Rather than solely attracting supporters who entirely agree with him, Paul has been reaching out to a wide variety of voters, both inside and outside the Republican Party. He spoke to this in Bangor as well, highlighting his policy proposal to provide tax relief to struggling urban areas, and advocating the growth of the party beyond its current base. Paul clearly recognizes what many of us have been saying: that the Republican Party needs to modify its approach to appeal to new constituencies and continue to be competitive.
It’s impressive for any politician to reach out to new supporters that they don’t necessarily immediately need, but especially so for someone who may be about to run in a presidential primary. Winning a primary at any level is, all too often, about dividing and conquering rather than reaching out, so this is a refreshing approach.
As part of his outreach, Paul has been making peace with elements of the Republican Party that his father battled. During his swing through New England, he not only enthusiastically endorsed our own Sen. Susan Collins, he stopped in Boston, where he met with Romney supporters and his own former primary opponent, Trey Grayson. Of course, this will cost him some of his father’s most dedicated supporters — indeed, it already has — but it has also brought some of his father’s policy concerns into the Republican mainstream.
In Bangor, Paul successfully used folksy humor to highlight the ridiculousness of D.C.’s out-of-control spending and the responsibility Hillary Clinton bears for the devastating results of the attack in Benghazi. This approach worked to explain these issues in front of a friendly crowd, but likely will before wider audiences as well. He didn’t shy away from the civil liberties issues for which he is so well known, but they were far from the entirety of his address.
So far, Rand Paul has been trying to grow the Republican Party, rather than merely appealing to the base. He’s been making peace with those who opposed his father, rather than exploiting divisions. In Maine, he created unity, rather than conflict. If he operates a presidential campaign this way, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with, one that all of us (regardless of party) should take seriously, in 2016 and beyond.