On Tuesday morning, Rand Paul walked into a ballroom in an Anchorage, Alaska Sheraton and began an epic tour through the northwest. Today, with a rally in Salt Lake City, the tour comes to an end in a primary state that's seen as newly competitive in the GOP race. (For the first time since 2004, there is no Mormon candidate running.)
Not many DC-based reporters flew out west to watch this -- by which I mean, no other DC-based reporters trekked to Alaska, Washington, Idaho, et al to catch Paul. That led to one of the lessons of the campaign swing:
1. Rand Paul has almost fallen out of the Republican conversation. If that wasn't clear after the first presidential debate, the Western tour put it into sharp relief. The trackers who watch every Paul move in early primary states did not bother showing up. Paul's campaign actually filled some of that role, putting speeches and press conferences online, capturing occasionally dismissive questions. One example: The reporter in Boise who noted that any Republican could win Idaho in a general election, and asked why Republicans should bother supporting Paul. "To be the 'any Republican who’ll win the general election,' you’ve got to win the nomination," he said.
The Democrats who try to make life difficult for Paul only took two swings at him; when he told a reporter in Seattle that no one should apologize for saying "all lives matter," and when two speakers who preceded him in Spokane called legal abortion a "holocaust." There is really only one Republican driving a narrative -- and it isn't Paul.
2. Trumpmania is everywhere. No Republican, recently, has taken more shots at "fake conservative" Donald Trump than Rand Paul has. Despite that, almost every voter I talked to at five Paul rallies admitted that Trump was his second or third choice, because he was saying what everyone was thinking. (That formulation came up again and again.) Conservative talk radio stations buzzed with Trump chatter. It left the Trump skeptics feeling cold and worried.
"It's like the movie Idiocracy," said Brandon Phillips, 31, at the Fairbanks, Alaska rally. "If this ends up between Trump and Hillary, I'm gonna volunteer for the Mars mission."
In an interview, Paul insisted that he was not getting blowback from attacking Trump. "Once people know that there's more going on then his bellicosity, I think the numbers will shift," he said.
3. Despite all that, the "liberty movement" is battered but alive. Everywhere Paul went, he found state legislators who'd endorsed him, chapters of the Republican Liberty Caucus that venerated him, and voters who nodded knowingly at quotes from Milton Friedman. They were adherents of a Paul message that has gotten lost elsewhere; the GOP, they said, would lose unless it nominated someone with libertarian tendencies.
"Here in Washington state, he’s right -- liberty wins," said Washington State Rep. Elizabeth Scott. "Look at how they voted on the initiatives. Look at how they voted on marijuana, on gay marriage, on the two-thirds majority requirement before raising taxes. That’s the liberty message."
The reality of popular libertarianism was everywhere Paul campaigned. In Seattle and Spokane, he spoke just miles away from stores legally selling marijuana. In Idaho he spoke sheltered from the haze of forest fires, which he -- and conservative voters -- blamed in part on government ownership of natural spaces.
4. The Planned Parenthood fight may define September. Paul's trip came with a coordinated day of protests at Planned Parenthood clinics. For all the local libertarian issues Paul brought up, he typically won his biggest applause when he mentioned the fight to defund Planned Parenthood. Clint Didier, a frequent "liberty" candidate for office in eastern Washington, introduced Paul's Spokane rally with a passionate call to defund the group.
"When you look back at WWII, they’re called the Greatest Generation because they stopped the Germans from taking the Jews into extinction," he said. "Are we going to sit idly by or are we, the people in this room, going to be the next generation to stop this Holocaust? Now we know why America has lost God’s grace."
This summer, Paul used his alliance with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to secure a vote on defunding -- which failed. His problem: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has taken the lead in demanding a defunding as part of must-pass bills this fall. An alliance of pastors chose Cruz, and not Paul, to be the first spokesman for the effort.
Paul's Western tour proved that there is a big enough "liberty" vote to matter in March's caucuses. It did not quite prove that the vote was vouchsafed for him.