When Rand Paul ran for Senate as a Tea Partier in 2010, he made a point of telling Kentucky Republicans he wasn’t a libertarian like his dad. Once elected, Paul proved it. He voted to impose economic sanctions on Iran—a red flag for libertarians, who don’t believe the U.S. should intervene in foreign affairs—and opposed a pot legalization bill that then-congressman Ron Paul sponsored in the House.
A different Rand Paul has been on display recently. After President Obama issued executive orders on gun control in January, Paul announced he’d write a bill giving Congress the authority to nullify the orders. Nullification of federal powers is a central tenet of libertarians. In March the senator staged a 13-hour filibuster to protest the Obama administration’s secret drone program, calling it a direct threat to civil liberties because American citizens could be targeted without due process.
Paul isn’t just making an appeal to the die-hard libertarians who formed his dad’s grassroots base. With talk of 2016 already in the air—a super-PAC to support a Rand Paul presidential bid was formed in January—he’s also courting establishment Republicans, casting himself as a leader. “The Republican Party has a void of power,” says GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “The language he uses is a hybrid between mainstream conservativism and libertarianism, to attract both. He’s picking his moments, and he’s made some politically shrewd moves.” Paul didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Paul and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, his fellow Kentuckian, used to be adversaries; McConnell backed Rand’s primary challenger in 2010. The men are now working together, recently co-sponsoring legislation to legalize industrial hemp production. During the filibuster, which most Republicans sat out, McConnell went down to the Senate floor to congratulate Paul for his “courage and conviction.”
With Paul’s blessing, McConnell has hired Paul’s former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to run his re-election campaign next year. McConnell needs Paul’s backing to keep the Tea Partiers from mounting a primary challenge. Paul stands to gain from the alliance, too. “Mainstream conservatives are still forming an opinion about him,” Bonjean says. McConnell’s ties to more moderate Republicans could help.
The elder Paul’s fan base is applauding Rand’s return to the family fold. Political groups that backed Ron’s 2012 presidential bid deluged their e-mail lists with messages during the filibuster, urging them to rally around Rand’s defense of civil liberties. Student activists flooded the Conservative Political Action Conference to show their support, giving him a thundering reception. “I always said I was never going to fall on the Rand wagon,” says Gigi Bowman, the founder of a political action committee that raises money for candidates inspired by Ron Paul. “And now I’m falling for him.”