RENO, Nev. — Rand Paul thinks he has something in common with many in this iconoclastic state: They don’t like the government meddling in their business.
“I think a lot of you moved out West, or your parents or your great-grandparents, you came out here to be left alone,” the senator from Kentucky, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, told a packed ballroom above a smoke-filled casino floor this week. “Some came looking for land, some came looking for opportunity, but the thing is — most of us — it’s an American thing to want to be left alone.”
As Paul travels the country, no state may be more important for him than Nevada, where his libertarian father, former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.), had a robust ground operation during two previous presidential cycles. Rand Paul’s message of gun rights, individual liberties and calls to curtail government regulations also appeals to many in Nevada, especially in the sagebrush-studded rural parts of the state.
The chips have been falling in Paul’s favor here. The state legislature decided to stick with presidential caucuses rather than switch to a statewide primary — a move that is likely to benefit Paul because of his father’s grass-roots infrastructure in the state. Nevada is fourth in line among early nominating states, after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“Nevada can be won,” Paul told supporters here. “It’s a caucus state. We’re glad of that, and thank you to the legislature.”
But Paul also inherits controversy in Nevada because of his name. Ron Paul supporters flooded the 2008 state GOP convention, prompting it to be suspended and angering many mainstream members of the party. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the state’s GOP caucuses, but Paul supporters won almost all of the state’s delegates to the National Republican Convention by gaming the system.
Now the younger Paul is trying to blaze his own path in Nevada, attempting to build on his father’s base of support and fan out to students, conservatives and others.
“That’s the goal here, to attract new people,” Paul said after his speech here. “To encourage the people who did support my dad and also to get new people. It has to be a bigger crowd.”
To do that, Paul’s campaign said he plans to move beyond the population centers of Las Vegas and Reno and into smaller cities and rural areas. Nevada, an aide said, is “Rand Paul country” and the campaign thinks it can do well here and throughout the West.
In stops here and in Colorado this week, Paul called for federal land to be transferred to the states in this area of the country, where the government owns about half of the land.
“I understand the government owns a little bit of your land out here,” Paul said as the crowd in Reno laughed. “Maybe we can rearrange that so the federal government is out of your hair.”
During his visit to Nevada, Paul touted his flat-tax plan, his speech against renewing the USA Patriot Act, his opposition to government regulations and his call for the nation to be judicious in using its military strength.
“It’s very much a leave-me-alone kind of thing here, and he plays very well,” said Kim Kirkland, who attended a Paul event at a bar in the tiny mining town of Elko.
But Paul’s visit here also engendered controversy. Rogue rancher Cliven Bundy, who had an armed standoff with the federal government last year over land rights and who was criticized for making racially charged remarks, attended a Paul rally at a casino in Mesquite.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Bundy said he and Paul met privately, although Bundy’s family members and Paul’s staff members were in the room. A Paul aide said that Bundy showed up at a public event and that there was no private meeting.
Bundy said he and Paul stood and chatted for about 15 to 20 minutes and talked mostly about land rights.
“I did get to visit with him for several minutes in private,” Bundy said.
Nick Phillips, political director of the Clark County GOP who opposes keeping Nevada as a caucus state, said he thinks Paul will have to distance himself from the people who attended the conventions in 2008 and 2012 if he wants to broaden his base here.
“If he would like to pick those people up, he would have to distance himself, I think, from some of the shenanigans people are afraid of,” Phillips said.
But Paul’s stance on land rights and paring back the government to the barest amount necessary resonated in Reno and Elko.
“He’s for the ranchers and people who live on the land” and want the government to stop telling them what to do, said James Jeffries of Spring Creek, Nev., who attended the Elko event.
One couple at Paul’s event in Reno said their names were Ron and Marcia but declined to provide their last name while talking to a reporter. When asked why, the man referred to the senator’s opposition to the National Security Agency’s bulk surveillance program.
“Privacy,” he said. “That’s why we like him.”