Doug Stafford, who has no equal among Sen. Rand Paul’s advisers, announced that he is leaving his post as chief of staff to head up Rand’s political operation. In other words, he’s going to set up the 2016 presidential campaign. Stafford tells me that deputy William Henderson will replace him. Henderson has been with the Paul team “since the beginning” and was the legislative director for Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. Stafford says he will remain as a part-time adviser on the Senate side for some time.
All presidential races are daunting, but Paul will have added burdens and the advantage of having watched his father’s campaigns up close.
He’ll need to figure out how to make his message resonate with two essentially incompatible groups — social conservatives and libertarians. On drugs, gay marriage and foreign policy, these voters will be looking for very different things. Ultimately, he’ll have to decide if these groups can be reconciled or if he can succeed without a chunk of one of these groups.
He’ll need to overcome concerns that he hasn’t really left a mark on the Senate and that he does not have executive experience. (He has three years, certainly, to change the former.)
He’ll need to clarify his foreign policy views and become more facile with a range of national security issues, recognizing that, in light of the Boston bombing, the public is going to be more sympathetic toward government surveillance and other counter-terrorism measures. (His clarification recently — and the ensuing backlash — on drones showed how treacherous that can be.)
He’ll have to figure out put together a fundraising organization, which is not likely to include the major Republican donors (who will line up with one or more mainstream figures) and which will have to raise significant money to compete.
He’ll have to figure out how to deal with his father and his father’s ideas, recognizing that voters have a right to know where he differs, and prepare himself to answer calmly the same nagging questions over and over.
He’ll have to figure out how to mesh his close-knit circle of advisers with more experienced presidential-level staff.
In the meantime, he seems to be coming around to a new role in the Senate. He’s not a rejectionist in the mold of former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), nor is he the instigator of major reforms in the mode of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Nevertheless, he is becoming a constructive player, trying to bend legislation his way and debunk skeptics who think he’s too extreme in his views. He brings ample conservative credentials to stand up to immigration exclusionists and Defense of Marriage Act backers.
Most intriguing are his efforts at outreach, which, theoretically, could create a new, expanded base of support for himself and, in turn, the entire GOP. His speech at Howard University got mixed reviews, but he can learn from that and refine his message. Whether it is young people, gays, Hispanics or African Americans, Paul has started early in laying the groundwork among voters who haven’t been attracted to the GOP message.
It is impossible to tell almost three years before the first primaries if he’ll be a top-tier candidate. But, in the GOP it is not uncommon to require a couple of presidential races before snaring a nomination. He and his team have shown that they can adapt and increase their tactical skills rapidly. He remains one of the more interesting, some say confounding, figures in the GOP.
It’ll be fun to watch him.