How Rand Paul Lost the Libertarian Primary to Ted Cruz

Rand Paul has officially dropped out of the Republican presidential primaries – an ignominious fate for the man once described as the “most interesting man in politics.” He was once lauded for his more mainstream brand of his father’s libertarianism that would supposedly appeal to young voters, minority voters, and those growing tired of the post-9/11 national security state.

And yet his detractors seem to have won out in the end. Some said that his outreach to the Republican establishment compromised his brand among Ron Paul loyalists who put a premium on purity above all else. At the same time, the growing importance of national security issues among voters following the rise of ISIS made non-interventionism a losing proposition. More broadly, some argued that libertarianism simply was not a strong identifier for voters, despite the broad popularity of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. Paul would have a core group of devotees, they said, but a low ceiling of support.

In fact, the problem with Paul’s libertarianism may simply have been that it was not enough. It is not that libertarians are uniquely weak in the GOP – indeed Ron Paul was able to win a close third in Iowa and strong second in New Hampshire in 2012. It is simply that no candidate could hope to win the nomination with a single Republican interest group. William F. Buckley famously built a conservative movement on the “three-legged stool” of anti-communists, libertarians, and social conservatives in the mid-20th century[1]. Ronald Reagan won their support in 1980 along with so-called Reagan Democrats (working-class white voters with a populist bent).

Consider the fates of other single faction candidates. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum could not translate their support from evangelicals into victory. Nor populists like Pat Buchanan who appealed to Reagan Democrats (the same fate will probably befall Donald Trump). Even moderates like George H.W. Bush in 1980 and John McCain in 2000, typically seen as being part of the party establishment, could not hold up against more conservative candidates who transcended these constituencies (though they would win the subsequent open primaries as the previous runner-ups).

A libertarian can probably win the nomination too, provided that he unites other factions as well. The likeliest adopter of this model in 2016 is Ted Cruz, who has shrewdly imitated some of Paul’s signature libertarian issues, while enhancing them with support from Reagan Democrats, Tea Party supporters, and evangelicals. This coalition was able to propel him ahead of Trump and Marco Rubio in Iowa, as Cruz won a plurality of 2012 Santorum and Ron Paul voters.

Saying that Cruz is the closest heir to Rand Paul’s movement may sound strange to some. After all, this is the man who said he would “carpet bomb” ISIS to oblivion, has emphasized social conservatism as a full-blown culture warrior, and has increasingly expressed skepticism towards free trade and immigration. Every other plank of the Ted Cruz platform seems to contradict the isolationist, libertine, business-friendly caricature of modern libertarianism.

But remember, Cruz began teaming with Rand Paul in the Senate long before he ever conceived of a strategy to wrest evangelical Iowans from a crowded field of competitors, or to ride in Trump’s wake with anti-establishment, working-class voters. Cruz has shared the floor with Paul during filibusters on Obamacare and the NSA, risked his lead in Iowa by criticizing federal subsidies, and has increasingly been name-dropping libertarian luminaries on the campaign trail. His prominent record as Texas Solicitor General allows him to speak about the Constitution with unique authority.

Cruz’s key to maintaining a coherent conservatism among its various hues has been to paint them with a populist flourish. His national security views take the popular high road of standing for civil liberties and against nation-building, while hedging against isolationism with vibrant Jacksonian “don’t mess with us” rhetoric. He asserts his opposition to gay marriage and abortion by emphasizing the religious freedom of Christians, states’ rights against overreach by the federal government and the Supreme Court, and the defense of unborn life (with echoes of Ron and Rand Paul). And Cruz justifies his skepticism of immigration and trade by tying them to self-interested business elites who are undermining American national sovereignty.

The bottom line is that Cruz’s balancing act is challenging and, to some, insincere. But it is tactically sound – a successful Republican nominee has always been able to transcend a single faction and if not unite the party, at least find enough support among its subgroups. Rand Paul was considered the new face of the GOP’s libertarian wing, but lacked a winning strategy beyond being less extreme than his father. While Ted Cruz will not be a perfect fit for all of them, a great deal of former Paul supporters will find a home in his campaign.

[1] “Anti-communists” could also be used interchangeably with “neoconservatives” or simply “foreign policy hawks.” “Social conservatives” can be called “the Religious Right” or, more specifically, “evangelicals.”


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