Senators Paul and Cruz line up at the 2016 starting gate
Based on recent developments, it looks like Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas are serious about taking a shot at the Republican nomination in 2016. Others will join the race, of course, and while it’s tempting to write off anything before the midterm elections as too premature to hold any 2016 significance, it should also be abundantly clear by now that serious Presidential runs start early. Fifty-state campaigns require a lot of preparation. Candidates who aren’t ready with a fifty-state strategy are likely to become, at best, the kind of brief sensations we saw over and over again in 2012. There were moments when promising challenges to Mitt Romney fizzled because his competitors just couldn’t present a plausible strategy for going the distance after a strong showing in the early primaries. Big money and important support organizations kept shifting back to the one candidate who could show them such a strategy.
With that in mind, Rand Paul’s already got his fifty-state campaign up and running. Robert Costa at the Washington Post observes that Paul’s early ground work should help to “win the confidence of skeptical members of the Republican establishment, many of whom doubt that his appeal will translate beyond the libertarian base that was attracted to Ron Paul, a former Texas congressman.”
The younger Paul’s nationwide organization, which counts more than 200 people, includes new supporters who have previously funded more traditional Republicans, along with longtime libertarian activists. Paul, 51, of Kentucky, has been courting Wall Street titans and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who donated to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, attending elite conclaves in Utah and elsewhere along with other GOP hopefuls.
For the rest of this year, his national team’s chief duties will be to take the lead in their respective states in planning fundraisers and meet-ups and helping Paul’s Washington-based advisers get a sense of where support is solid and where it’s not. This is essential in key early primary battlegrounds, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and in areas rich in GOP donors, such as Dallas and Chicago.
“A national leadership team is an important step, and it’s a critical one for the movement going forward,” said Fritz Wenzel, Paul’s pollster. “Rand has tremendous momentum, and the formation of this team will guide him as he gets closer to a decision and [will] serve as a foundation for a campaign.”
Of course, the base Ron Paul left behind can also prove a significant asset for his son, assuming he can inherit their loyalty. (They seem to like Rand just fine at the moment.) 2012 campaign watchers will remember how well-organized Rom Paul’s operation was. Fold that into a new campaign that can also appeal to big Republican donors, look like a winner to nervous Establishment folks, and reach out to every part of the conservative base, and the result will be formidable… perhaps formidable enough to keep some other contenders out of the race. There’s a lot to be said for clearing the decks before the intense primary crossfire begins, especially since the Republican Party has expressed a desire to keep its primary shorter, smaller, and more focused this time.
The romantic notion of a national political campaign has a dashing candidate sweeping voters off their feet, marching to victory through the primary calendar with a steadily growing army of supporters. In truth, winning campaigns are built with a lot of detailed groundwork, which is why serious players get started early:
Paul’s leadership team is set up as part of Rand Paul Victory, a group that pools donations. It is a joint committee that overlaps the fundraising efforts of Rand PAC, Paul’s political action committee, and Rand Paul 2016, his Senate campaign, and his aides describe it as the basis for a presidential campaign.
“There are people in every state who have joined Team Paul, with the money people ready to go,” said Mallory Factor, a consultant and South Carolina Republican who has worked with Paul to expand the senator’s footprint.
Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Romney and House Republican leaders, said the development of a national network was a notable moment in pre-primary positioning.
“This framework of supporters is an important building block in the architecture required to build a competitive national campaign,” Madden said. “What looks like just a name is often someone who knows local reporters, has a fundraising network or has an ability or history of organizing party activists.”
That’s the sort of thing you can’t do with a campaign strategy that involves knocking everybody’s socks off in Iowa or New Hampshire, basking in the glow of the triumphant underdog, and then hoping organizations in forty more states appear out of thin air to welcome you.
Noah Rothman at Mediaite sounds a sour note, suggesting that Paul’s heavy emphasis on the domestic surveillance controversies might cost him, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea: “Paul’s marriage to the concept of scaling back the nation’s surveillance apparatus has been undeterred by the most severe international crisis in 25 years. Russia’s unchecked invasion of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula may have been merely a prelude to a much bloodier campaign aimed at capturing the country’s East and South and cutting Kiev off from the sea. What’s more, the events in Eastern Europe provided the public with as clear a demonstration since the 9/11 attacks of what a dismal and ongoing intelligence failure looks like.”
None of that seems to be hurting Paul so far; he’s still at the top of early 2016 Republican polls. The Russian situation is a failure of foreign surveillance, while Paul has concentrated his fire on excessive domestic spying. He might even make the case that the Surveillance State’s obsession with spying on Americans has distracted it from tracking foreign threats, and created international tensions which interfere with effective overseas intelligence gathering. There has been speculations that Edward Snowden’s defection gave the Russians knowledge they used to evade U.S. surveillance when they moved on Crimea. Foreign policy remains one of the most important areas in which Rand Paul must demonstrate he’s different from his father, but it doesn’t look like his position on the surveillance state is causing him any serious problems.
Meanwhile, Ted Cruz just produced a sort of “greatest hits” video, driven by footage of his speech at CPAC 2014, that not only rallies Republican voters for the midterm elections, but looks like the introduction to a presidential campaign:
Cruz has also been spending a lot of time at the presidential line of scrimmage in Iowa lately – four trips in barely eight months, as tallied by the Associated Press, which makes him second only to Rand Paul among likely 2016 contenders in Iowa visits. He’s been using this time to speak on social issues and religious freedom, and getting what sounds like an enthusiastic reception:
“There is no liberty more important than religious liberty,” said Cruz in his keynote speech at the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators’ annual state Capitol lobbying day. He later added: “This nation was founded by men and women fleeing religious oppression and coming here seeking the freedom to seek out our lord God almighty with all of our hearts, minds and souls, free of the government getting in the way.”
Cruz’s father was born in Cuba but is now a pastor in the suburbs of Dallas. His son has made no secret of his religious faith since joining the Senate last January, but rarely makes it a centerpiece as he did Tuesday.
“We have never seen an administration with such hostility toward religious faith,” Cruz told a crowd of more than 500 parents and many of the children they teach at home. Some of the children scribbled on coloring sheets featuring religiously themed lessons on America’s Founding Fathers.
Cruz pointed to what he said was the Internal Revenue Service under the Obama White House forcing religious groups to divulge more information for tax purposes. His sentiments were often met by calls of “Amen!” and “Praise God!”
Cruz also made a surprise visit to religious freedom activists outside the Supreme Court this week, as the Hobby Lobby case against ObamaCare mandates was argued within. The Washington Examiner reports that Cruz didn’t let the freezing weather slow him down:
Activists cheered Cruz’s arrival after spending several hours standing in the snow in front of the court during oral arguments inside.
“Thank you for being here in this beautiful weather from God,” Cruz added as the crowd laughed.
Cruz reminded activists that the United States was founded by people who fled religious oppression and enshrined religious freedom in the Constitution.
“There is a reason why the first protection in the Bill of Rights was the right to religious freedom,” he said.
Cruz pointed out that the Obama administration had given Obamacare exemptions to powerful special interests, but refused to exempt people of faith from the contraception mandate.
“And yet the position of this administration is that people of faith do not deserve an exemption, people of faith do not have a right to practice their faith,” he said.
Cruz explained to pro-choice protestors at the Supreme Court that the case had nothing to do with their individual right to use birth control.
“No one is doubting that any person, if they choose to use contraceptives can do so. This is not about that,” he said. “This is about the federal government, whether they can force people of faith to violate their own faith by paying for something that is contrary to the dictates and teachings of their faith.”
He sounds like a candidate interested in speaking to the broadest audience possible. Pro-choice people may find his outreach easier to accept, by necessity, if the Supreme Court rules against the ObamaCare mandates. A social-conservative stance that resonates with the broader electorate following a major Supreme Court decision is great material for a presidential campaign.
There’s still time for other contenders to lay this kind of groundwork for their campaigns, but time is probably shorter than conventional wisdom would suggest. If Cruz and Paul appear wholly unacceptable to the GOP establishment, it could quickly coalesce behind a candidate designed to take them on… which, in turn, gives these early contenders strong incentive to demonstrate both broad appeal and sound fifty-state strategies to the Establishment, early on. The race before the race is well under way.