Hillary Clinton, to no one's surprise, announced Sunday that she's running for president. Barring catastrophe, she'll become the Democratic nominee next summer. There is no such clarity on the Republican side, with a new candidate official entering the race every week. But this much is clear: If the GOP want to defeat Clinton next fall, they should turn to the only Republican whose buzz rivals hers: Rand Paul.
The Republican Party is at a crossroads. Its base, bolstered by big-tent conservatism throughout the 1980s and late 2000s, is aware of its own image problem: The “Party of No” is on the losing side in the battle for marriage equality, has failed to convince Americans that it has a clearer plan for healthcare reform, and remains tacitly pro-war when the population is interested in a U.S. withdrawal from foreign intervention. Worse yet, its base is aging and isn't being replaced by younger voters. Libertarianism, however, is on the rise nationally, with 22 percent of eligible voters identifying with the movement in recent polling. Enter Rand Paul, heir apparent to the movement, who pointedly said during in an interview with the Associated Press, “Young people aren't so wedded to party. The kids are probably adrift somewhat. I don't think someone who is an authoritarian, or comes from a much more authoritarian point of view like Hillary Clinton, will attract them.” A fresh brand of libertarian-infused conservatism could be the way forward for Republicans looking to woo the youth vote, and Paul sees himself as the person who can provide it.
Rand might be right. While Clinton has overwhelming support from Millennials who grew up under her husband’s administration, the growth of libertarian ideology among young voters may peel away some of Hillary’s reliable supporters, swayed by Paul’s “leave-me-alone-coalition” of voters, reluctance toward the use of military force abroad, support of medical marijuana legislation, his platform position on criminal justice reform, and his sometimes-unpolished appearance in interviews and stump speeches that connote a sense of “realness” that is uncommon in GOP candidates. Paul gains headlines for what he’s not: a non-threatening Republican with a cadre of platform stances that are nearer to obsolescence than relatability. His brand of digestible libertarianism is made for the post-Obama generation. Hillary, on the other hand, is likely seen as a successor of Obama’s administration; she is the torch-bearer that Vice President Joe Biden would be, were he cut out for the presidency. Young voters who came of age during Obama’s two exciting campaigns may find Hillary to be a less magnetic choice compared Paul—if he finds traction with any Republican voters willing to compromise the beliefs of the base for the betterment of the party.
But therein lies the rub. Rand may be the candidate that Republicans need, but not the one they want. He is a dove in a party of hawks; a pro-marijuana legalization advocate in a party that only tacitly embraces reform. He’s a young, vibrant speaker whom Millennials actually listen to (even if he needs to be trained not to lash out at reporters). He doesn't espouse the conservative boilerplate of his competitors, so he may not stand a chance in Iowa, where his father’s campaign took devastating blows in 2012, or in the GOP primary generally. And yet, polls suggest he would stand a chance against Hillary in the general election. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Paul leads Clinton in both Iowa and Colorado while a national surveys place him only seven points behind Hillary. Paul leads Clinton in current Iowa polling by two to three percentage points. He leads Clinton on head-to-head polls in Colorado as well, a crucial state during both Obama campaigns.
Jeb Bush is seen as the strongest Republican candidate, given his name recognition, relative moderation, and powerful donor base. But it could be tough to convince anyone outside the party to vote another Bush into the White House, especially after the economy is finally showing signs of recovery. Rand Paul, so far, has said all the right things to make the base warm to him: He calls for a balanced budget every year of his prospective administration, wants to curtail government spending, is decidedly anti-bailout, and would gleefully dismantle regulation before he has a chance to take off his overcoat in the Oval Office. What’s more, Paul opposes abortion, would block welfare grants to states, and takes a dim view of marriage equality initiatives. With the waning influence of Evangelical Christians and the wholesale admonishment of neoliberalism by economists, it may be time for the GOP to cater to a fresh brand of conservatism, even if it means shifting what the base considers “conservative enough.” Savvy Republicans would do well to see Paul’s mixture of likeability and base conservative values as a Trojan horse for swing voters, a demographic which might not want to vote for the obstructionist party after two more years with a sclerotic Congress.
The Democrats have paved a clear path for Hillary Clinton. Few serious challengers exist, and those who do—such as Senator Elizabeth Warren—have indicated their deference to the Democratic heir apparent. Make no mistake, Hillary has proven herself worthy of getting the party’s endorsement: She is by far the most experienced campaigner, has a proven track record of foreign policy expertise as secretary of state, and can capitalize on the growth of feminism and gender equality that now permeates American culture. She is, however, the “establishment candidate” when compared to Rand Paul. A war-averse public may not want a president who is so closely associated with the practices of her predecessor, and worst yet, may cringe at how easily Clinton will ascend above her Democratic challengers. That she might not be in the political fight of her life, as she was in 2008, may even dampen the zeal of those who supported her back when Obama was the “outsider” candidate.
American politics is nothing else if not a spectacle machine; that there does not seem to be a major fight brewing for the Democratic nomination could take the wind from Hillary’s sails before August. And with few other signs of life within the broader electorate, the GOP might need to stop worrying about Rand and come to embrace him as their only viable shot at beating Hillary’s campaign juggernaut. After all, Americans do love an underdog.