Few political figures have more good will built up with the Tea Party than Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). He ascended to power by taking on the GOP establishment, has a conservative voting record, and has electrified the Senate with his drone filibuster and other stands.
But activists working to elect Matt Bevin and watching Paul’s strong support of Sen. Mitch McConnell in the primary campaign raging in Kentucky are sending a message that they’re done standing by quietly while Paul works to elect their foe.
“Conservatives still like Rand Paul, but they’re disappointed that he’s supporting Mitch McConnell. It goes against everything Rand Paul says he stands for,” said Matt Hoskins, the head of Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee formerly helmed by Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint.
“Quite frankly, Rand Paul is beginning to have a credibility problem with the Kentucky Tea Parties,” added Scott Hoffstra, spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party.
Although over the past several years he’s worked to create ties with the GOP establishment and taken steps to broaden his appeal to independent voters, the hostile comments are perhaps the most significant friction he’s encountered on his right flank since taking office.
Even for Paul, it seems, there are limits.
The main catalyst for the push back, and the incident Hoffstra was responding directly to, was Paul’s remarks last week taking Bevin to task over his difficulty explaining his signature on a 2008 pro-TARP letter that was issued by an investment company of which he was president.
“I think it hurts any individual if it appears as if their responses to issues aren’t consistent,” Paul reportedly said in Kentucky last week, adding, “So the fact that at one point he said he was for TARP but now he’s against TARP, it does hurt credibility.”
A clearly angered Hoffstra said Paul’s statement hurt him with the Tea Party in his home state. “Rand’s credibility with the United Kentucky Tea Party and Conservatives around the state dropped several notches with his statement bashing Matt,” Hoffstra said. And some other Tea Party leaders in Kentucky, when contacted by Breitbart News, stood by Hoffstra’s comments.
Hoskins noted that it’s ironic that Paul is supporting McConnell because McConnell “did everything he could to defeat Rand Paul in 2010. Conservatives know their champions are going to do things from time to time that they don’t agree with, but this one is pretty hard to swallow,” he said.
While surprising at first glance, given the history, the detente between Paul and McConnell began right after Paul defeated McConnell protege Trey Grayson in the 2010 primary. Then, McConnell worked hard to ensure Paul won the general election, including sending his top aides to help with the campaign.Two years later, McConnell hired Paul’s top political hand – who has deep ties into the Paul family, having worked for former Rep. Ron Paul, Rand’s father, and married Ron Paul’s granddaughter.
Benton’s move caused some head scratching within Paul’s network, and he was later caught on audio tape explaining to a Paul ally that he was “sort of holding my nose for two years” in working for McConnell so that McConnell would help Paul in 2016.
Undoubtedly, Paul’s standing on the right remains strong overall. He has a 96% rating from Heritage Action for his voting record in the 113th Congress. His most significant Senate accomplishment – a 13-hour filibuster that forced Attorney General Eric Holder to publicly state the Obama administration did not have authority to order drone attacks on American citizens not engaged in combat on American soil – is still drawing him accolades. Last year, it helped boost him to first place in the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee.
But in 2013, Paul also set about courting high-dollar GOP donors and the mainstream media. He’s reportedly made a concerted effort to connect with the donor community in trips around the country.
With the press, Paul takes pains to demonstrate his foreign policy views aren’t the same as his father, who was well-known for opposing U.S. intervention in almost all circumstances. He also avoids discussing his father’s influence on his political philosophy and the ins and outs of his views on political theory.
Paul has also managed to walk a fine line on several key debates in 2013 in a way that privately prompted some envy on the part of his rivals.
On immigration, for example, Paul loudly came out in favor of “comprehensive” immigration reform and criticized the GOP for focusing too much on border security. When the “Gang of Eight” bill was on the floor, Paul helped kill it. In opposing the bill, Paul said he wanted border states to certify that the border was secure — not that he opposed providing citizenship for millions of illegal aliens.
Paul also craftily avoided most of the fallout from the government shutdown, which instead fell on Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. The reason was Paul was ostensibly participating in the push to defund Obamacare but made several statements during and after distancing himself from the strategy. “Even though it appeared I was participating in it, it was a dumb idea,” he said on Fox News in November.
“Rand Paul, I’m not saying he is not ideological, but there is a political calculation that goes along with it that I don’t think people appreciate,” said one senior GOP strategist.
Some of Paul’s fans on the right, meanwhile, privately question how his centrist plays will help him win the presidential nomination in 2016, thinking his only path is as the main conservative candidate, a role that some argue Cruz is edging Paul out of.
Eric Wilson, the former executive director of the Kentucky 9-12 Project who supports neither Bevin nor McConnell, said Paul’s remarks about Bevin do associate him more strongly with the GOP while Tea Party activists there are not partisan.
“I’m a registered independent. I’m not endorsing Bevin or McConnell. I think both parties have left us. I’m neutral on the Republican Party and Rand Paul is showing himself to be part of that,” Wilson said.
Not all Kentucky grassroots activists think Paul’s credibility is hurt by his support of McConnell. Janet Gordon, head of the Boyle County, Kentucky 9-12 group, told Breitbart News on Monday “I am a Matt Bevin supporter, he’s a breath of fresh air for Kentucky. I don’t question Rand Paul’s credibility and I don’t question Matt Bevin’s credibility either one.
“When people in our group are disappointed in Rand Paul’s support for McConnell, I tell them if you want to vote for a candidate you agree with 100 percent of the time, you need to run for office yourself,” she added.
Gordon does not see any lasting harm to Paul for his support of McConnell. “Were Matt Bevin to win the primary, I think Rand Paul would support him completely. I don’t question Rand Paul’s motives or credibility one bit on that matter.”
Sergio Gor, a spokesman for Paul, declined to comment.