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The GOP's Biggest Midterm Loser: Rand Paul

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

If there’s one Republican in the country who wishes Republicans hadn’t had such a good election night, it’s Rand Paul. This is not to say that Paul wishes ill on his party, or is unhappy with the general outcome, but that he would be better off today if the party’s gains were smaller or concentrated in different places.

It’s no secret that Paul’s chief ambition in life is to be elected president, but he also wants to keep a foothold in the U.S. Senate in case that ambition is deterred. For this to happen, he needs to accomplish three things—to extend the constituency for his foreign policy views in GOP circles; to vanquish establishmentarian rivals in political combat; and to dominate Kentucky politics. All three goals took a hit on Tuesday.

Let’s begin in Kentucky. The 2014 midterms were a largely Southern affair, and Democrats, as you’d expect, were wiped out everywhere they ran. Everywhere, that is, except the Kentucky House, which is now the party’s sole legislative perch in the entire region. Paul wanted Republicans to win that chamber, not just out of a reflexive sense of partisan duty, but because it’s the key to his ability to advance in politics with one foot on the national stage and one foot in the state.

A Republican legislature in Kentucky would have gladly changed state law to allow him to run for president and re-election in the Senate simultaneously. The Democratic House, by contrast, has refused to grant him this favor, which leaves in place a genuine tension between Plan A and Plan B that he’d hoped to resolve on Tuesday.

If Kentucky Democrats don’t relent, and the Republican Party doesn’t help him find a workaround, Paul will eventually have to choose between running for president and running for re-election.

Presumably he would take a gamble on the presidency. But if he got cold feet, and decided to hang around the Senate for another term or two, he might just come to resent future Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for prevailing in his own re-election Tuesday night. By vanquishing his opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, McConnell left a young, qualified, and now better-seasoned female Democrat waiting in the wings for another shot at the Senate. Paul will be a formidable incumbent if he chooses to run for re-election. But unlike McConnell, he’ll be running in a general election cycle, and likely in an campaign that will be heavily colored by a phalanx of Democratic women stepping up to challenge an old, white, conservative male guard. Paul vs. Grimes could easily become a synecdoche for that national theme.

But Paul’s bid for the presidency just became more complicated in its own right. Republicans made huge gains in the Senate, but none of the victors hails from a Paul-esque tradition of skepticism of U.S. foreign entanglements. The most prominent and celebrated members of the Republican freshman class—Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Arkansas’ Tom Cotton—are the vanguard of the GOP’s resurgent interventionism. The Republican party won a new, substantial congressional majority on Tuesday, but one that made Rand Paul more of an outlier than he already was.

The GOP's gubernatorial election dominance also strengthened two prominent, non-Washington Republicans—Wisconsin's Scott Walker and New Jersey's Chris Christie—who will have major advantages over the party’s presidential aspirants in Congress. As the Republican Party has endured a national slide, its establishment has become more infatuated with the idea of nominating northern Republican governors to run for the presidency. These governors, the logic goes, have the management credentials required to run the country, and a track record of appealing to non-southern constituencies, which will serve them well in the general election. But being a successful northern Republican governor usually means doing business with a liberal or centrist legislature, and, thus, deep-seated liabilities with the GOP primary electorate. Mitt Romney can tell you about it. If you don’t believe him, ask Tim Pawlenty.

Walker has squared this circle. He’s governed as a conservative, done battle with liberal state legislators, taken on Democratic sacred cows, and then won a second term. He and the other Republican governors who were re-elected or swept into power on Tuesday owe their victories at least in part to Christie, who chairs the Republican Governors Association. Christie will need their help if he throws his hat into the ring. And among the current class of GOP presidential hopefuls, he is Paul’s chief antagonist.

Every Republican should be able to find something to love about Tuesday’s returns. Paul himself managed to twist the midterm into a referendum-in-retrospect on Hillary Clinton. But that tortured analysis may, more than anything, reflect the fact that Paul had no words of encouragement to offer the actual winners.