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Ron Paul’s Army Complicates GOP 2010 Hopes

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Rand-paul-schiff.jpg

Rand Paul and Peter Schiff (YouTube)

He’s had a sympathetic CNN interview, a Fox News radio hit, a write-up in U.S. News & World Report, stories from The Associated Press and stories in all the local papers. The first week of Rand Paul’s campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Kentucky — he announced his bid Aug. 5 — has drawn the sort of coverage most first-time candidates wouldn’t dream of.

“I don’t think I could have scripted it better than it’s gone so far,” said Paul, speaking to TWI from his home in Bowling Green. “It helps being related to somebody famous. I don’t hide that fact. I also think that this will be one of the top two or three Senate races in the country, and people are going to keep on paying attention.”

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Elephant.jpg

Image by: Matt Mahurin

The “famous person” who’s gotten the press interested in Paul’s campaign is his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), whose gadfly libertarian-themed campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination garnered $35 million in campaign contributions won him more than one million votes, and elevated his critiques of the welfare state and the post-Bretton Woods monetary system from late-night speeches on C-SPAN to regular appearances on cable news. One year after Paul bowed out of the 2008 presidential race, his network of supporters, without having to waste their time on the impossible goal of winning a presidential nomination, are picking smaller targets. By showing up at town halls, they’re getting more attention as health care critics than they did as supporters of a quixotic White House candidate.

And they’re backing candidates like Rand Paul, whose quest for a Senate seat, in a conservative state, with a now-established political brand, is more plausible. On Aug. 20, thousands of people — 1,700 have already committed — are being encouraged to donate to the younger Paul’s campaign in a “moneybomb” modeled after the single-day events that raised $5 million and $6 million for his father during the 2008 campaign. On Aug. 7, Connecticut investor Peter Schiff, a libertarian who manages Euro Pacific Capital, who advised Paul in his presidential bid, and has never run for office, raised $350,000 with a similar, web-driven campaign, pushing his total since launching an exploratory committee to $800,000. The effort got a boost from the Texas congressman himself, who told the members of his massive e-mail list that “our country needs Peter Schiff in Washington,” and that they could “go to www.Schiffathon.com right now and make a contribution.” The day that Rand Paul launched his campaign with a New York fundraiser, both candidates appeared on the Fox Business Channel; hours later, Schiff stopped by the fundraiser to make a donation.

“People got to know Rand during his father’s campaign,” explained Trevor Lyman, a web programmer who helped launch the Ron Paul campaign moneybombs and is working on the August 20 effort. “Peter Schiff and Rand Paul are both capable of attracting national media attention, and people think we have a chance to win in both races.”

The support of Ron Paul’s army for these two candidates puts Republicans in a potentially difficult spot. Kentucky, where Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) is retiring, and Connecticut, where Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is dogged by ethics scandals, are seen as must-hold and must-win seats for the GOP, respectively. The party has favored candidates in both races, both of whom have held elective office — Secretary of State Trey Grayson in Kentucky, and former congressman Rob Simmons in Connecticut. So far, Grayson has raised more than $600,000 for his campaign, and Simmons has raised $754,000. Both candidates face the likely possibility of spending heavily to defeat libertarian-leaning candidates before they can go on to their general elections.

Some Republicans are dismissive of the Paul-backed Senate candidates. “Yes, Schiff is going to raise a ton of money, just like Ron Paul,” said one Connecticut Republican strategist. “He has a cultish following based on one video of him, like a broken clock, saying something gloomy about the economy that was later proven right. But how many of the people who’ll give him money live in Connecticut?”

The same criticism came from Roy Occhiogrosso, a Democratic consultant. “He has one claim to fame, that he said some things that happened to come true,” said Occhiogrosso. “That doesn’t make a U.S. senator.”

The video in question is a YouTube clip titled “Peter Schiff was right!” which went online days before the 2008 election and has clocked nearly 1.5 million views. The video spliced together clips of Schiff pessimistically talking about “sky-high real estate prices coming back to earth,” and predicting that “most of the profits people have in real estate are going to vanish,” recorded during the height of the housing boom. Andrew Schiff, the candidate’s brother and his media manager until an official campaign decision comes “in about two weeks,” argued that the video, and all of his brother’s economic commentary, is just proof that he’s closer to the Republican base than the party’s leadership.

“Peter wants to make the race about economics,” said Schiff. “The issues that he talked about then are going get a lot of lip service from the other Republicans in the race. They’ll say they agree with him, but they’re not as ‘extreme.’ Most Republicans talk a good game, and then they get into office and spend like Democrats.”

Early polling has not shown any support for Schiff, who would have to get through a state party convention and a primary open to independent voters to claim the Republican nomination. Rand Paul, who has closer political ties to Kentucky that Schiff does in Connecticut — Paul founded an anti-tax group, Kentucky Taxpayers United, in 1994 — is seen as more likely to drive the debate in his state’s primary, and more likely to upset the party’s preferred candidate. Jesse Benton, who is doubling as a spokesman for Ron and Rand Paul, suggested that Grayson had the weaker Republican credentials in the race, because as a college student in 1996 he’d been a delegate for President Bill Clinton.

“There are a lot of Kentuckyans who voted for Bill Clinton twice and then turned around and voted for George W. Bush and John McCain,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky Republican strategist. “As long as Grayson’s core message is lower taxes, limited government, opposition to cap and trade, opposition to the Democrats’ health care reform; as long as he jibes with the GOP primary voting bloc he’ll be fine.”

Democrats aren’t so sure that a more ideologically conservative campaign would help Grayson in the long run. Some hope that a well-funded Paul campaign, even if it didn’t upset Grayson, would weaken the nominee in the general election. “You’re going to see Grayson trying to get to the right of Rand Paul, and I don’t think he can do that,” said Mark Guilfoyle, a Kentucky Democratic strategist. “That’s a nightmare scenario for them. Whoever comes out of the primary is going to be very, very far to the right. I wouldn’t say Rand Paul would be easier to beat — either situation is going to be good for us.”

Back at home, making the first real hiring decisions of the campaign, Rand Paul dismissed all of that, and dismissed the idea that support from out-of-state members of Ron Paul’s army will hurt him as “jealousy” from the party elite. “There’s a disconnect between primary voters and the party’s leadership,” said the younger Paul. “I don’t think Trey Grayson has a clue as to what that disconnect is. We hear that there are people who control the reins of power, and that they’ve got the party workers locked up, but I see so many new friends and faces wherever we go. We’re peeling them off in droves.”

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