Rand Paul: more libertarian GOP can win blue states

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W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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A more libertarian Republican Party could win in the blue states. That’s the argument Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has been road-testing, most recently in his visit last week to California.

“[T]he way we’re going to compete is by running people for office who can appreciate some issues that attract young people and independents: civil liberties, as well as a less aggressive foreign policy, not putting people in jail for marijuana, a much more tolerant type of point of view,” Paul told Wired during his trip to Silicon Valley.

“If you have Republican candidates like that,” Paul continued, “then I think all of a sudden you’d find California back in play.”

Paul repeated some of these themes to a more familiar GOP audience at Ronald Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley. “I think to win in California we need to tell people that we’re the party that wants to do nation-building at home, not always overseas,” he said to applause.

The Kentuckian was elected during a Republican wave in 2010, in a state where Barack Obama won less than 38 percent of the vote last year. Paul has since been viewed as a tea party leader, even titling a post-election book “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.”

Paul’s libertarian pitch is an attempt to show he can reach out beyond the traditional Republican base without alienating the conservatives who have been his strongest supporters.

Those close to the senator believe it is important that he can demonstrate general election appeal as well as his conservative credentials if he runs for president in the 2016 GOP primaries.

In 2012, Republican primary voters were frequently split over electability versus ideology. In Ohio, for example, exit polls showed Mitt Romney dominating the field with 52 percent of GOP voters looking for someone who could beat Obama in November to Rick Santorum’s 27 percent.

Santorum won 51 percent of those who said they were looking for a true conservative. Romney finished last among these voters with 13 percent, but won the Buckeye State’s pivotal primary.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Ron Paul, the Kentucky senator’s father, won the “true conservative” vote but Romney carried the pluralities seeking to beat Obama.

At the same time, the younger Paul cannot be so libertarian that he repels social conservatives — evangelicals voted against his father in large numbers throughout the South. Neither can he allow his talk of inclusion to dilute his conservative brand.

It’s a delicate dance that saw Paul actually downplay his libertarianism when talking to evangelicals in Iowa.

“I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” The Washington Post quoted Paul as saying. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

Some are skeptical Paul can thread the needle. “It’s far more likely that if Paul continues to send significantly different messages to different audiences, he will end up alienating all his possible supporters,” Nick Gillespie, editor of the libertarian Reason magazine, argued in The Daily Beast.

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote that Paul “claims his civil libertarian positions don’t weaken his commitment to national security, but we’ve yet to see him assert a muscular position on any foreign policy issue, even when it comes to Iran.”

Rubin also asked of Paul, “Is he going to vote for reasonable immigration reform or insist on some unattainable bill so he can vote no and stick with anti-immigrant right-wingers?”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is another potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate who touts minority outreach while boasting a conservative voting record. Rubio is Hispanic, from a swing state that has voted against the GOP in the last two presidential elections and a leader on the “Gang of Eight” immigration reform team.

Paul has been more tentative on immigration, but  has won high marks from conservative groups like Heritage Action, the American Conservative Union and Club for Growth while at the same time criticizing drones and current sentencing practices for nonviolent drug offenders.

The senator is trying to convince Republicans that his is a winning mix everywhere.

“I don’t think we need to dilute our message of low taxes, less regulation and balanced budgets to win in California,” Paul said at the Reagan Library.

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