GOP mulls military voters’ role in caucus for Rand Paul
Aiming for two offices, Rand Paul asks for caucus.
Senator Paul is a man in a hurry, with presidential stars in his eyes after a mere four years of serving Kentucky in Washington. Rand Paul takes the first step toward running for president when he asks state party leaders in Kentucky to endorse his idea to create a 2016 presidential caucus.
He’s been the most active potential candidate on the trail in the past two years, and his political team has already installed a baseline campaign operation. The move would clear the way for Paul to run for president and for re-election to his Senate seat without breaking a state law that bans candidates from appearing on the ballot twice in the same election.
A vote Saturday by the Republican Party of Kentucky’s executive committee would endorse the concept of a caucus and instruct a committee to come up with a plan on how to implement one. Appearing before the 54-member Republican Central Executive Committee in his hometown of Bowling Green, Paul will ask for a caucus system for selecting national convention delegates, a process that would not be governed by state law.
The first-term senator from Kentucky wants to keep his day job as a U.S. senator—a gig that’s up for re-election in 2016—while simultaneously making a run at the White House. In Washington, he sometimes sports golden, presidential-seal cuff links. “I don’t think any state has a more interesting pair of senators and a more influential pair of senators,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. More importantly for Paul, it would be an early endorsement of his unusual plan for dual campaigns ahead of a wide open Republican presidential primary. The senator’s political operation is prepared to defray the costs of the caucus — estimates range from several hundred thousand dollars to under $1 million — by raising money from outside Kentucky, Bayens said. Kentucky is one place in America where a tea-party firebrand and a Republican from the governance wing amicably meet – though it’s taken a recognition of mutual interests to make that happen.
Most interpretations are that Kentucky law prohibits a candidate’s name from appearing twice on a ballot, and a move to a caucus would prevent that from happening. While their relationship could be dismissed as a political marriage of convenience, analysts say it’s an example of how two people with different philosophies can come together once they get to know each other – the way members of Congress from different parties used to for much of the 20th century. Then on Aug. 22, the party’s state central committee will decide whether to proceed with the change. “One thing that’s become increasingly clear to me is that people are open to this idea, are open to discussions about it,” Robertson said. “But they don’t know much about it.” Robertson added, however, that “it’s a herculean task to put together all of the logistical moving parts of (designing a caucus) and a fair representation of a judgment as to what it might cost. That way his name won’t appear twice on the May ballot, and Kentucky’s presidential nominating contest could possibly become relevant in the national horse race for delegates with an earlier spot in the primary calendar.
The caucus is a Strategy B for Paul, whose earlier attempts to modify state law have been thwarted by the Democratic-controlled Property of Representatives. But since then, they’ve forged a symbiotic relationship that, Paul hopes, will prove particularly useful to him at a critical juncture this weekend. It sounds like a win-win situation, but it’s an institutional change that would cost a lot of money, require months of planning and potentially lead to lower voter turnout.
On Saturday afternoon, Paul will meet with Kentucky GOP leaders, and – with a valuable nod of approval from Senator McConnell – will ask them to switch from a presidential primary to caucuses. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, did in 2012. “My request to you is simply to be treated equally compared to other potential candidates for the presidency. Despite the concerns, interviews with more than half a dozen members of the state party’s executive committee, which will hear Paul’s pitch on Saturday, suggest that the party is likely to move forward with the idea. And why do we think that Kentucky will be any better?” The Kentucky Secretary of State’s office does not keep tabs on the number of registered military voters. But in 2014, 656 voters requested an absentee ballot because of their active duty military status and another 506 requested an absentee ballot because they lived overseas.
More than 35,000 people voted absentee overall in November. “It’s only an issue if we can’t figure it out,” Kentucky GOP chairman Steve Robertson said. “We have it from the Republican National Committee that we have wide latitude in how we can try to address that.” Absentee voting can be a cumbersome process in Kentucky, particularly for those who are overseas. A voter must request a ballot by mail at least seven days before an election and officials must have the ballot in hand by 6 p.m. local time on election day. Paul also will speak at a Lions Club convention in Bowling Green. “We also wanted Rand Paul to be in the Washington episode, and he agreed, but then bailed at the 11th hour,” show runner Michael Schur reportedly told HitFix. “I think he thought we were making fun of him or something, which we were not, at all. Paul also was quoted this week as saying that it might not be “all bad” if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. “But I don’t think it’s all bad to consider that she would be the nominee, because I think what she considers to be her strength – foreign policy – is precisely her weakness,” he reportedly said.
It was just 2010 when Kentucky’s senior senator was at serious odds with Paul, the ophthalmologist son of Ron Paul – a three-time presidential candidate with a faithful libertarian following. But Mitch McConnell, the ultimate ringleader of GOP politics in the state, decided to endorse the plan, essentially providing Paul a green light and creating a game changer in the local debate.
First, the McConnell machine tried to turn Paul out of the race by offering to back him for a state senate campaign, according to an account in Politico. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell along with McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, are seen at an election night victory celebration on Nov. 4, 2014. (Photo: Jessica Ebelhar, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Jour) “Not only would it be helpful to the senator’s presidential campaign but, as a one-time event paid for with funds that he’d raise, would do no damage to the state party or interfere with this year’s state races,” McGuire said. Among other anti-Paul efforts, McConnell supporters set up a website, TooKookyForKentucky.com, that sought to document Paul’s “radical” views, including support for marijuana legalization and opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He noted that Iowa has chosen not to use absentee ballots for the nation’s most important presidential caucuses, a sign that it won’t be an easy fix. “To our knowledge there is not a traditional caucus that really has figured out how to do that,” he said. “But that is certainly something that would be a goal.” He saw caucusing Iowans at cafes and bars shouting down supporters of other candidates, so “I’m not too impressed with that type of politics,” Skaggs said.
It’s unclear, for example, how absentee ballots would be cast, and urging voter turnout is already typically lower in caucus systems—which generally consist of in-person gatherings—than in primaries, in which voters cast secret ballots. “I don’t want to disenfranchise voters, so that’s something I have to work through in my mind at least,” said Charlie Masters, an executive committee member. “To me that’s the biggest negative.” Caucus proponents are hoping that the excitement and media attention surrounding a March contest might help offset the normally lower voter numbers in caucuses. Nothing illustrates that political lesson more than one October day when McConnell, stumping with Paul, was getting ready to emerge from the campaign bus.
The schedule change was “a great testimony about McConnell’s exquisite sense of self preservation,” says Cross. “He could see that Paul was in the process of taking over the party that he was the titular leader of. But the relationship gradually improved, with McConnell continuing to extend support, including an assignment on the foreign relations committee to help round out Paul’s resume. Paul’s isolationist positions have moderated somewhat, and he has even guided McConnell on domestic policy, resulting in a pilot program for industrial hemp to fill the void left by Kentucky’s drop in tobacco farming. It’s possible a frontrunner could get enough votes to force other candidates out by then, and if that frontrunner isn’t Paul, as one committee member described it, this “could all be moot.” About the junior senator he wrote: “The real secret to Rand’s rapid rise from a Bowling Green operating room to the center of American politics is his authenticity.
It’s a trait that’s obvious to anyone who has seen him come out of a D.C. television studio in Ray-Bans and shorts, or hold the Senate floor for half a day to get answers from an imperious White House. “Spend five minutes with Rand and it’s clear he doesn’t care what you look like or where you’re from. He’s beating the bushes for anyone who prizes liberty, and he’s forcing people to rethink the Republican Party.” That snippet appeared in the midst of McConnell’s own primary campaign battle last year against a tea party candidate, Matt Bevin. Thomas Massie (R) of Kentucky and Agricultural Commissioner James Comer, a gubernatorial candidate, to sway any doubters on the state GOP executive committee. True, McConnell will still be able to open some doors for contacts and donations, but a presidential campaign involves vastly different candidates, voters, and donors. “I’m sure McConnell could share his lists and the like, but when you step back, a presidential race is so different,” says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
McConnell may well need Paul’s help in dealing with Senate tea party renegades such as Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who has presidential ambitions of his own.
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