The media are a cynical lot. When a politician decides to run for a higher office but also list himself on the ballot, it’s not a big story. Pols have done it before (e.g., VP Joe Biden) without much of a flap. So it may come as a surprise when actual voters object to someone wanting to have his cake (a shot at higher office) and eat it, too (run for reelection). For that reason (and perhaps the difficulty of getting reelected), Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida say they will run for only one office. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is doing the opposite in trying to keep his options open. And that is not sitting well with Kentucky voters.
The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that “only 15 percent of Kentucky registered voters think Paul should run for both offices, the survey finds. By a 24-22 percent split, slightly more believe he should run only for his Senate seat than make a bid for the White House. And a third of voters oppose the freshman senator running for anything. Paul enjoys a 39 percent favorability rating in the state, the poll shows. Thirty-two percent of registered voters view the senator unfavorably, while 24 percent say they are neutral.”
Wait. He’s got a 39 percent approval rating in one of the most conservative states in the country?! That’s pretty low for a guy who is supposed to be in touch with the grassroots. In any event, “Allowing Paul to run for two offices at the same time is not popular, with 54 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of independents and 78 percent of Democrats opposed to changing state law, according to the poll.”
This raises a number of issues. First, if Paul would have trouble winning his Senate seat, why put himself on the ballot at all? Frankly, it would give another candidate and third-party groups another election in which to run ads, attack his record and use free media. Second, as many of us suspected, his outreach to minorities has been a bust, at least in his own home state. (“48 percent view him unfavorably, while just 13 percent have a favorable opinion”). Perhaps a libertarian philosophy, huge cuts to the federal government and an isolationist foreign policy are too much to tolerate, even though Paul is touting a few issues (e.g. drug reform) he thinks can sway minority voters his way. As we have observed, if he can’t win new GOP voters and will lose a large chunk of existing ones because of his policy positions, he’s got a problem. And that brings us to the third issue: Even among Republicans he’s not generating enthusiasm for a presidential run. “Paul’s potential bid for the White House divides Republicans as much as Kentucky voters in general. The poll finds that 33 percent of registered Republicans in the state favor such a run, while 31 percent prefer Paul to seek a second term in the Senate. Just 19 percent of Republicans think Paul should pursue both the presidency and the Senate.”
The caveat to all this is what the voters say they won’t like may be very different from how they vote when presented with names on a ballot. Nevertheless, it makes it hard for Rand Paul to obtain legislative relief, in the form of a new election law, when the voters are so strongly opposed to a change. That’s going to leave him — supposedly a constitutional conservative and 10th Amendment defender — making an argument that the Constitution trumps state election laws. There is precedent on both sides, but his federal primacy argument is certainly not a slam dunk in court, as election law experts have opined. But more to the point, it runs afoul of his rhetoric that the feds should trust the states to run their own business. (That was the argument in invalidating Section 5 of the Civil Right Act.)
In sum, Rand Paul’s desire to maintain a safety net in the form of his Senate seat is not sitting well with home-state voters, among whom he’s not all that popular to begin with (not a good sign for a presidential run). In insisting he has the right to be on the ballot twice, he’s running afoul of the very base he seeks to cultivate and acting like just another pol playing all the angles. At least that’s what Kentucky voters say. For my money, I see nothing wrong with running for two offices. (Arguably it is worse to run for another office when you have a full-time job and, if you win, quit before your term is up.) But for now, Kentuckians don’t agree.