Rand Paul's Quest to Woo Young People -- What Does It Mean for Libertarianism?

No one in the political establishment seems to know quite what to make of Rand Paul, the United States senator from Kentucky and son of Ron, the three-time quixotic presidential candidate with a libertarian bent. In 2012, Ron Paul, the former congressman from Texas, said good-bye to all that, retiring his House seat and forswearing another presidential run, having prepared the ground for his progeny, who hopes to inherit the throngs of young followers nurtured by his father.

By turns quirky and cunning, rumpled and slick, Rand Paul, at this writing, is running neck and neck in the polls, according to Real Clear Politics, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the undeclared establishment candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And it’s not inconceivable that Paul could win it—if not this time, then perhaps in 2020, when the millennial generation, whose members he’s been courting, will comprise just under 40 percent of all eligible voters, according to the Center for American Progress.

The younger Paul, an ophthalmologist by trade, bounded onto the national stage in 2010, propelled by his father’s name recognition and the internal battles of the Republican Party, when he vanquished the hand-picked candidate of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the GOP senatorial primary of the leader’s own home state—a kind of horse’s head left at the foot of McConnell’s bed, delivered by sponsors of the Tea Party, who cared not for McConnell’s brand of pragmatic politics. Winning endorsements from the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Senate Conservatives Fund founded by then-Senator Jim DeMint, and enjoying a friendly relationship with the Koch brothers’ free-spending Americans for Prosperity, Rand Paul took his seat in the U.S. Senate as part of the great midterm Tea Party wave, the backlash election against all things Obama.

But Paul has never fit neatly under the Tea Party banner. As much as he shares the movement’s rhetoric on “limited government” and accusations of “tyranny” against the president—not to mention the Tea Partiers’ hardcore anti-abortion position—he’s prone to striking out on his own on matters of foreign policy, domestic spying, and criminal justice. On those issues, he would have you believe he’s a libertarian—meaning non-interventionist in matters abroad, and liberty-loving in matters at home. In truth, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Take, for instance, his position on same-sex marriage, which is touted as freedom-loving by his supporters because he opposes any federal action to prevent it. On closer examination, though, one finds that Paul’s bias in this instance offers no protection for the personal liberty of gay, lesbian, or bisexual people; he would leave the matter for each state to determine. Live in a red state? Tough luck.

True libertarians deplore what they call statism, but Rand Paul’s propensity for leaving the states in charge of governing this most personal of matters—whom one will marry—is a contradiction echoed throughout his approach to many matters concerning individual rights. In many ways, he’s as statist as they come.

On matters of foreign policy, when Paul has found his neo-isolationism bumping up against his political ambition, he’s been known to dial back the former, or at least try to split the difference. He may have voted against President Barack Obama’s plan for arming Syrian rebels, but just weeks before the vote—after the beheadings of two American journalists by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began to drive public opinion—he expressed support for air strikes targeting ISIL, a reversal of his previous position.

That doesn’t mean he won’t bamboozle the various constituencies he apparently hopes to cobble together to fuel his likely presidential run: libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley donors, anti-tax Republicans, and privacy-driven millennials (defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1977 and 1992) whose political identities are still being formed.

It’s tempting to write off Paul, given some of his audacious antics—his epic 2013 anti-drone filibuster, his almost sure-to-fail lawsuit against the president (filed earlier this year as a challenge to the NSA’s domestic spying program)—but these are never exercised simply to draw the spotlight; they’re also organizing tools.

The filibuster, which really focused only on drone attacks against American citizens abroad, was accompanied by a ferocious Twitter campaign that engaged both social media and mainstream media for the duration of his utterances from the Senate floor that day and night, and drew in people who would ordinarily define themselves as progressives. And the quixotic lawsuit was revealed by Politico’s Katie Glueck to be a fundraising tool.

“Largely unnoticed in Paul’s effort is this: The names and email addresses of anyone who registers support for his class-action suit against the NSA,” Glueck wrote, “goes straight into the Kentucky Republican senator’s political database, which he could leverage into a campaign.”

NSA domestic abuses, like drone attacks, are among issues that should draw the vociferous opposition of liberals. Yet for the most part, Democrats offered tepid shows of concern, leaving ripe areas for Paul to exploit, especially with liberty-loving millennials.

Few in American politics know how to seize a political moment like Paul does. When police in Ferguson, Missouri, rolled out tank-like vehicles and pointed assault weapons at unarmed protesters who took to the streets in response to the police killing of the unarmed African American Michael Brown, Paul weighed in quickly with an essay on Time magazine’s website, decrying the militarization of the nation’s police forces with surplus equipment gleaned from the federal government.

It was a stroke of genius, consonant with his professed libertarian values, but also a fence-mending gesture, of which he has made many, for his rejection, based on an extreme reading of property rights, of the public accommodations section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—the part that desegregated lunch counters, restaurants, theaters, and retail establishments throughout the nation. While Paul took pen to paper, Hillary Clinton dithered, taking another two weeks after Paul’s August 14 Time essay to make remarks on the situation in Ferguson.

Young Goldwater supporters stop on a San Francisco street, July 9, 1964, to talk with Mary Scranton, wife of Governor William W. Scranton of Pennsylvania, who vied against Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for the Republican presidential nomination.

If a Rand Paul presidential nomination by the Republican Party seems preposterous, says historian and former Republican Party official Tanya Melich, think back to 1964. At that time, Melich was a recent college graduate and former member of the Young Republicans, a group rooted on college campuses and ultimately taken over by supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who improbably grabbed the Republican nomination out from under the feet of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, largely through the grassroots organizing of young conservatives. At the time, Melich said, she was covering the movement for ABC News, and “it became very clear that these Young Republican Goldwater people were really sharp,” she said in a telephone interview from her New York City home. “They knew how to organize.”

For the past two presidential election cycles, and ever since, the Paul organization has focused on campus organizing, building lists of young people excited by both father and son’s talk of liberty, and promise of freedom from foreign entanglements.

For liberals, Goldwater often fills the role of punch line, given his landslide loss to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Sure, Goldwater was routed, but his campaign brought together the minds and builders of a movement that became known as the New Right, a movement that went on to create the religious right, elect Ronald Reagan president, and set the nation on a rightward course for decades. It all began with a longshot candidacy, a quirky candidate, and a horde of highly motivated young people. Surely Rand Paul has read that script.

Win or lose, Rand Paul’s aim is to re-create the GOP in his own image, infused with the vigor of his young followers and committed to a radical dismantling of the federal government as well as an even more radical devolution to the states’ rights philosophy of the old Confederacy—not to mention disengagement from the world. This movement, if successful, could alter the party for years to come. And the old, neoconservative Republican Party establishment may never see it coming.

Of GOP leaders, Melich said: "They’re a little bit like my buddies in the Clinton camp, who couldn’t quite understand [in 2008] what the Obama people were doing.”


At the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), movement faithful gathered at a conference center at National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C., as the Republican Party veered between soul-searching over its loss of the 2012 presidential election and contempt for campaign leaders who presided over Mitt Romney’s drubbing by President Obama. But as conference panelists looked backward in main-stage discussions with titles like “Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?,” others were looking ahead—not least of them, Rand Paul.

On the CPAC stage, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida likely felt he was having a good outing. Warmly received by the crowd, his planned applause lines were drawing claps, and no one heckled him. But before his speech was over, the room began to fill with young people bearing professionally designed and printed signs that demanded, “Stand With Rand.” Most arrived by bus from area colleges, members and allies of the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), a group founded as an offshoot of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. The students’ raucous appreciation for the son, who followed Rubio on the program, would ensure that Rubio’s speech would seem unremarkable by comparison.

As he approached the podium bearing two stuffed loose-leaf binders, Senator Paul exuded an air of satisfied triumph. Just the week before, his 13-hour talking filibuster in opposition to the nomination of John Brennan as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency won him hours of free airtime, as news shows picked up footage of his floor performance from C-SPAN, and invited him to their sets.

Paul, who likes to present himself as a proponent of civil liberties, focused on Brennan’s support for the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens deemed to be “enemy combatants” in the Global War on Terror. The filibuster ploy was a stunning success in the annals of public relations strategy, propelling Paul to national-figure status, and serving as the opening salvo in the 2016 Rand Paul for President campaign. A day after the filibuster, Paul told Politico he was considering a run for the nomination.

At CPAC, Paul held up his binders for the audience to admire, joking, “They told me I had a measly ten minutes. So, just in case, I brought thirteen hours of material.” When he said he had intended his filibuster as a message to the president, a young man shouted, “Don’t drone me, bro!” There was laughter all around. “He just boiled down my 13-hour speech into three words,” Paul responded with a smile.

Senator Paul went on to win the CPAC presidential straw poll later that week, just as his father had done in the years before, thanks to the savvy organizing of the Young Americans for Liberty. In 2014, Rand Paul did so again.


Today, Young Americans for Liberty claims to have chapters on 527 college campuses across the nation, including seven in Iowa, and five in New Hampshire, the states that kick off the presidential nomination process with their respective caucuses and primary. Since 2008, Paul partisans have been organizing nationwide, especially among the young, via Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, and outgrowth organizations such as the Campaign for Liberty and YAL.

With a name reminiscent of a group crucial to the Goldwater campaign (the Young Americans for Freedom), YAL appears poised to attempt a similar role for Paul: to organize young people to vote in the caucuses and primaries, and to position them as delegates to the national convention. (In 2012, even though Ron Paul only mustered a third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, the Iowa delegation cast 22 of its 28 votes for him on the convention floor, a testament to his organization’s prowess at seating delegates from the Hawkeye state. Similar situations arose in the Texas and Minnesota delegations.)

In 2016, however, first-time presidential voters will confront new voter identification laws, passed by legislatures in many of the red states, that have deemed college IDs unacceptable for ballot-casting—even those issued by state colleges and universities. Perhaps that’s one reason why Paul is casting himself as a champion of voting rights. At a September YAL event in Alexandria, Virginia, known as the Liberty Political Action Conference, or LPAC, Paul derided the GOP for trying to shrink the electorate to accommodate its needs.

“So many times, Republicans are seen as this party of ‘We don’t want black people to vote because they’re voting Democrat; we don’t want Hispanics to vote because they’re voting Democrat,’” he said to the LPAC audience. “You wonder why the Republican Party’s so small. Why don’t we be the party that’s for voting rights?” The audience, much smaller and far more libertarian than the CPAC crowd, offered a hearty round of applause.

Indeed, the millennial generation is the largest and most racially and ethnically diverse in American history, according to a 2009 report by the Center for American Progress. In surveys ranking issues by importance, such as a July study by the libertarian magazine Reason, and a 2013 report by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, millennials rank the economy as their number one concern.

In his 2013 CPAC remarks, Paul cast the millennials as the Facebook generation. “They worry about jobs and money and rent and student loans,” he said. “They want leaders that won’t feed them a lot of crap, or sell them short. They aren’t afraid of individual liberty. Ask the Facebook generation if we should put a kid in jail for the non-violent crime of drug use, and you’ll hear a resounding ‘no.’ Ask the Facebook generation if they want to bail out too-big-to-fail banks with their tax dollars, and you’ll hear a ‘hell, no!’ There is nothing conservative about bailing out Wall Street. Likewise, there is nothing progressive about billion-dollar loans to millionaires to build solar panels,” he added, referring to the right-wing obsession of the moment: Solyndra, a company that received government loans and then went belly-up.

Though the Facebook generation appears united in its concerns about the economy, its members’ view of the government’s role in the economic well-being of the people varies within the cohort. Libertarians, such as the authors of the Reason study, are quick to jump on an overall figure for the generation that claims nearly half favor a fiscally conservative (and hence, smaller) government.

“We live in a culture, technologically, where we’re becoming more atomized with our phones and the way we do things. I don’t think they necessarily think that big is better,” said Jack Hunter, a libertarian and former member of Rand Paul’s Senate staff. Hunter now edits Rare, a website that’s a kind of conservative and more political answer to Upworthy, the liberal-leaning, feel-good clickbait website whose headlines have reshaped the way online media frame stories. (“You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next!”)

But if you drill down to look at which part of the millennial cohort expresses a belief in smaller government, it’s mostly white people, and the percentage varies according to how the question is asked. A March report by Pew Research found that overall, some 38 percent of millennials, not half, favored smaller government and fewer services. But when looked at through the prism of race, 52 percent of white millennials did, while 71 percent of non-white millennials favored bigger government and more services—numbers that likely speak to just which segment of the millennial generation Paul is aiming for.


Across the board, millennials, even those from conservative religious backgrounds, are notably more liberal than their elders on nearly all the so-called social issues, except for abortion. They grew up knowing out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians, and more than any prior generation, grew up knowing people of other races and ethnic backgrounds. They don’t like hearing LGBT people dissed or immigrants demonized.

In an interview in Rare’s stylish offices just off the famous lobbying corridor of K Street in Washington, D.C., Hunter, who frequently speaks at YAL events on college campuses, said that today’s establishment Republicans can’t reach these younger voters with what he called their “checklist of prejudices.” Compared with the famously anti-immigrant gadfly Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, Hunter said, today’s crop is even more bellicose.

“I mean, you’re talking about xenophobic comments and things—it’s really out there,” he said. “That is a turnoff to young people. They want zero to do with that. They grew up in a multicultural, multilingual, diverse America.”

So, when Rand Paul speaks of the racial injustice of the war on drugs, as he did at LPAC, or steps up on police overreach in Ferguson, it’s not likely that he does so because he expects to bring more African Americans or Latinos to his campaign. It’s to assure his almost completely white group of young followers that, despite his stance on the Civil Rights Act, he’s not a bigot.

On matters of individual liberties, the preferences of millennials track closely with libertarian positions. They don’t like the robust surveillance and data collection conducted by the NSA, for example. They’re likely to appreciate Rand Paul’s call for an end to the federal war on drugs, his advocacy for an end to mass incarceration by ending federal mandatory minimum sentences, and his support for immigration reform (after the border is secured, he now says). They overwhelmingly support the legalization of same-sex marriage. And they’re wary of war and foreign intervention, Pew found in a 2011 survey.

What they just may miss amid Rand Paul’s libertarian rhetoric is that, even by his own admission, he’s not a true libertarian. “I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative,” he told the Washington Post. What he doesn’t say is that he is a states’ rights advocate; many of his positions, such as his stance on LGBT rights, simply allow the individual 50 states to determine the scope of their citizens’ personal liberty, amounting to majority rule within the state’s borders, absent the modern understanding of the broader protections of the federal Constitution and the courts that interpret them.

When it comes to abortion, Paul is at odds with the millennial generation writ large, of which 61 percent favor keeping abortion legal. But Paul is likely not aiming for the generation writ large; he’s looking to bring in the more conservative among them. Anti-choice millennials, according to a 2010 survey by NARAL Pro-choice America, have a greater intensity of feeling for their views on abortion than do pro-choice millennials.

For women, a Paulist GOP would offer more contraction than expansion of their personal liberty. Last year, Paul put his name to a bill that would confer personhood on a fertilized egg (proposed as a way of getting around Roe v. Wade), granting it the same 14th Amendment rights as the woman carrying it—the amendment on which the Court decision rests. Of the Paycheck Fairness Act, Paul said he voted it down in 2012 because to pass it would be akin to having a Soviet-style Politburo. The marketplace should set wages, he said. So, if you happen to reside among a bigoted citizenry whose bigotry is aimed at you, well, too bad. That’s the market’s judgment.

As he does on matters of race, Paul also offers the occasional contrarian offset on matters of gender fairness. For instance, he signed on to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s failed measure to remove the adjudication of sexual crimes in the military from the chain of command. The bill offered him a way to look as though he cared about the plight of women, but in a way that suits the anti-authoritarianism of the libertarian ethos. As in the patriarchy of the Old South, women in a world ruled by Rand Paul would have little agency, left to rely on the chivalry of men.

When the Tea Party first burst on the scene, a clever T-shirt slogan was “Party like it’s 1776.” In Rand Paul’s world, you’d party like it’s 1856 and you’re living below the Mason-Dixon line. If you’re a white man with property, everything will be great.

Researchers for the Reason survey found that millennials, despite their majority support for Democratic candidates, do not have overwhelmingly firm attachments to either political party. A full 34 percent claimed no party affiliation—they saw themselves as independents who leaned toward neither party, in contrast to 11 percent of the general population over the age of 30. Reason also found that 60 percent of self-identified liberals in the millennial cohort said they were willing to vote for a libertarian-leaning candidate, though it’s unclear if they were offered a definition of what that meant.


Hunter could barely contain his glee when he recounted how a recent visit to Iowa by Rand Paul generated a rash of anti-Paul fundraising emails and tweets from Democrats. As to whether Democrats could continue to count on the youth vote to put them over the top in 2016, Hunter said, “It’s not a safe bet anymore, or not guaranteed.”

David Weigel, the Bloomberg News writer, formerly of Slate, isn’t buying it. Having covered the Pauls, the libertarian movement, and national politics going back seven years to his early writing career at Reason, Weigel just doesn’t see the liberal hordes of young people abandoning the Democratic Party for Paul—especially if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, her gender being another big “first.”

“Is Hillary Clinton going to run as a supporter of police departments having tanks? I don’t think so,” Weigel said. Nor does Weigel believe that Clinton’s relative hawkishness could hurt her with millennials in a matchup with Paul. In a full-on presidential contest, Weigel adds, opposition researchers and journalists will have a field day with Paul’s positions, as they did with his father’s. “The problem is that once you have a credible bid for president, then the contradictions and associations come out,” Weigel said.


If all there was to Rand Paul are the views he expresses today, his long-shot strategy for winning the White House might be less long of a shot than it appears to the naked eye. But Paul comes saddled with some questionable associations, and several policy positions in which his opponents will no doubt rejoice—most notably his aforementioned longtime opposition to the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act.

His reasons for that opposition, he told Rachel Maddow just after he won the 2010 Kentucky Republican senatorial primary, were philosophical: He believed the section of the law that required private businesses to serve all who came through their doors to be a violation of property rights that was inconsistent with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of association, and also a threat to the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. It was exactly the same philosophical opposition to the law voiced by Goldwater when he voted against it in 1964.

Paul has since tried to explain it away, saying that he accepts the whole of the act today and that he was only a toddler when the act was passed, that had he been in Congress at the time the law was being written, he would have tried to “fix” it. But he has never said he has changed his mind regarding his assessment of that section of the act.

In April of last year, I covered, for AlterNet, Rand Paul’s speech to the students of the historically black Howard University, where he suggested that his positions had been “twist[ed] and distort[ed]” by his “political enemies.”

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Paul was asked about his stance on the Civil Rights Act, in which the questioner characterized Paul as an opponent of the landmark law. Paul countered that his concerns about “certain portions” of the law anticipated unintended consequences; for example, he analogized the public accommodations section to current efforts to ban smoking in establishments that serve the public, or to require restaurants to put calorie counts on menus. But, he said, “I never offered anything to alter the Civil Rights Act, so your characterization is incorrect.”

Professor Greg Carr, chair of Howard’s Afro-American Studies department, smiled when I asked him afterward what he made of that answer. “Obfuscation would be the charitable word,” he said. “I think [Paul] would have scored more points if indeed he [showed he] was coming here for a conversation, by saying, ‘These are some of the things I’ve said in the past, and I don’t know that I would necessarily reconsider them, but let me explain to you why I said those things.’”

Paul and his supporters can be prickly when challenged about this issue. When I asked Jack Hunter about Rand Paul’s controversial position on the Civil Rights Act, he didn’t answer the substance, but immediately attacked Rachel Maddow, whose interview of Paul on that subject he termed “an ambush.” Paul had to dismiss Hunter from his staff in 2013, once media reports surfaced of Hunter’s earlier radio persona as the “Southern Avenger,” an over-the-top shtick as a racist yahoo, who famously said that John Wilkes Booth didn’t try hard enough. (Hunter apologized for his past behavior in Politico magazine, and today is a champion of Paul's outreach to African Americans and Latinos.)

In April, Paul defended Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who defied the federal government by refusing to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land, posting an armed militia to guard his herd. The senator was later forced to walk back his defense when Bundy said that slavery had been a good deal for African Americans.

Paul is also saddled with his father’s associations with religious extremists and, like Goldwater, the John Birch Society—which, during Goldwater’s time, was a segregationist organization. Reporting for AlterNet, Bruce Wilson discovered that, in 2009, Rand Paul appeared as the featured speaker at a Minnesota rally of the Constitution Party, the far-right party founded by the late Howard Phillips. Phillips was a disciple of Rousas John Rushdoony, the father of Christian Reconstructionism, which calls for the law of the Hebrew Bible to become the law of the land, a mandate echoed in the Constitution Party platform.

Perhaps of greater consequence, at least for mainstream media reporters, is Paul’s earlier position, since revised, opposing all forms of foreign aid, which he articulated once again upon taking office. While a position consistent with his neo-libertarian views, it was seen as uniquely hostile to Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. aid. In a quick about-face, the senator said that he would countenance funding some $5 billion in foreign aid. “Why $5 billion?” asked the Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold in a September 14 article. “A Paul aide said that amount would give Israel its full share—more than $3 billion per year—and still have money left over.”

At the Values Voter Summit convened in September by FRC Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council, Paul described to the largely pro-war crowd his opposition to intervention in the Middle East as the best way to protect Christians in the region from the ire of radical Islamists.

Paul’s deft backing and filling sometimes collides with his own impetuous propensity for the outrageous. On September 11, Paul told an audience of millennials in New Hampshire that he’d repeal every executive order ever passed by every president. The group he addressed was Generation Opportunity, the outfit funded by the Koch brothers as a kind of junior achievement project modeled by grown-up groups like the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity. Remarks like these will make voters wonder just what he’d do as president.

If you happen to be an anti-regulatory neo-libertarian who finds himself in the White House, the opportunities are limitless, since you’d be in charge of the enforcement of regulation. Remember the BP oil spill, and why it happened? It was lax enforcement of regulations on oil rigs by the Minerals Management Service, first under George W. Bush, and then under Barack Obama. Imagine what a president with an expressly anti-regulatory agenda could do with such latitude.

Then there are the cabinet-level departments that Paul wants to eliminate altogether: Energy, Education, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development. He couldn’t do so without the help of Congress, but he could keep the drumbeat and refuse to fill positions.

In the past, he’s expressed support for voucherizing Medicare, and privatizing Social Security, which he has characterized, in its current formulation, as “a Ponzi scheme.”

To hear Paul tell it, in his dream presidency, he’d get to oversee the dismantling of much of the U.S. government. And if Republicans had control of both houses of Congress during a Paul presidency, he could get much of what he wishes for.


Paul’s strategy for winning the Republican presidential nomination relies on bringing together under one banner movement constituencies that rest uneasily with each other: the party’s free-marketeers, civil libertarians, and the religious right. There’s no satisfying all of them at once; the question is whether Paul’s courting of one faction can be accomplished without alienating the others.

In his LPAC speech, Paul made no explicit mention of his extreme anti-abortion position, or his religious beliefs. A week later, before the religious-right activists at the Values Voter Summit, he played a video as a lead-in to his speech that featured a fetal sonogram in its opening shot. “As Christians, we should always stand with the most defenseless,” he said in his remarks. “I believe that no civilization can long endure that does not respect life, from the not-yet-born to life’s last breath.”

Religious-right radio host Steve Deace, for instance, seems taken with Paul, but is wary of the senator’s states’-rights approach to same-sex marriage. Likewise, some of the libertarians in attendance at LPAC expressed concerns about Paul’s willingness to sign on to the administration’s air strikes strategy for battling ISIL—even if he did decline to vote for the arming of Syrian rebels. “The question is: Where are the compromises?” one attendee said to MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin.

Some Tea Partiers, meanwhile, are put off by Paul’s endorsement of Mitch McConnell during this year’s Kentucky senatorial primary, in which the minority leader fielded a challenge from Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin.

Given the strong hold that war-mongering neocons have on the foreign policy of the GOP establishment—including many who identify with the Tea Party—Paul will need to flood the primaries and caucuses with his anti-war millennials if he’s to have a chance.

Winning the Iowa caucuses, given the strength of religious-right forces there, won’t be easy for Paul, but it’s not impossible, given the way the caucus system lends itself to grassroots organizing. New Hampshire is a more likely win for Paul, since the “Live Free or Die” state has long embraced a leave-me-alone credo.

In South Carolina, the third early primary state, Paul will again have to dance fast to show well in a state populated by conservative evangelicals, but it’s also a state that’s home to many military families, a constituency whose members donated nearly $200,000 in individual donations to his father’s 2008 presidential run, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). And there, Paul will likely be able to tap the networks of Jack Hunter, a South Carolina native, and perhaps enjoy the support of former Senator Jim DeMint, who now runs the Heritage Foundation, and whose Senate Conservatives Fund backed Paul’s Senate race.

For Paul to maximize his libertarian credentials, he’ll need to stay in the race for the long haul, even after likely losses, to pick up delegates in Western states. And that will take an ample war chest. In September, to that end, he opened an office in San Francisco, the better to court Silicon Valley donors, many of whom lean libertarian. It’s smart strategy: In 2008, his father gleaned some $755,000 in individual donations from employees of the Internet and computer sectors, according to CRP.

Paul is also said to be courting the Koch brothers. In his Senate run, employees of Koch Industries ranked among his top 20 sources of donations. The Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit organization that spent nearly $35 million on so-called issue ads during the 2012 presidential campaign, was a sponsor of LPAC, the September conference hosted by the Pauls’ Young Americans for Liberty, as was the Charles Koch Institute. That same month, Paul addressed Generation Opportunity.

David Koch is known to be keen on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who, the New York Times reported, he tried to convince to run for the nomination in 2012. But that was before the Bridgegate scandal in which Christie aides were revealed to have shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge as payback to the mayor of Fort Lee, where the bridge originates. The mayor tangled with Christie on development projects and refused to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. And it would not be unthinkable for Koch-funded entities to help Paul stay in the race, as they did Herman Cain in 2012, if only for the purpose of pushing the rest of the Republican field toward their anti-regulatory positions.

At the top of the list of Rand Paul contributors in 2010 was the Club for Growth, a bundling operation that has had an outsized influence on the realignment of Congress to the right, a group whose members would likely shower him with dollars in a presidential run.

Then there’s the Pauls’ own Liberty Political Action Committee, and its organizing arm, the Campaign for Liberty. But whether Rand Paul could muster enough to counter the money operations of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which wraps its arms around the GOP’s more establishment candidates, is a big “if.” If Jeb Bush gets in, he will doubtlessly enjoy the support of the Rove-founded behemoths.

Were Paul to stay alive to the end, even without winning the nomination, he would spark a battle royal between the Republican establishment, with its targeting of older voters who are more inclined to support America’s foreign adventures and oppose immigration, and Paul’s neo-isolationists, who favor immigration reform. Should he put together a robust enough slate of delegates, there’s even the possibility of floor fights at the national convention over platform planks, and a show of disunity in the roll call of the states in the nomination process.

His presence in the race, even as an also-ran, would likely influence the Democratic primary, as well, forcing that party’s candidate to answer to Paul’s positions on NSA spying and the drug war, to name just two. Jack Hunter, for one, is rubbing his hands at the prospect of just such a spectacle. “I think it’s making people in the establishment of both parties nervous,” he said, “and I love it.”

And if Paul doesn’t make it this time, there’s always 2020.

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