A year ago, Sen. Rand Paul was immersed in a raucous Republican presidential primary and could hardly get a word in edgewise on a debate stage with more than a dozen rivals.
But after giving up on his presidential ambitions last February, Paul shifted his attention to seeking re-election to a second Senate term in Kentucky.
While Paul’s onetime presidential rival Donald Trump pulled off a surprise victory Tuesday, Paul is set to return to the Senate chamber in January.
He’ll do so with Trump in the Oval Office he coveted. He’ll share the spotlight with two more of his defeated Republican presidential rivals, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.
He’ll still be where he was in 2011, Kentucky’s junior senator, in the shadow of his more senior colleague, Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Rand Paul will still be where he was in 2011, Kentucky’s junior senator, in the shadow of his more senior colleague, Republican leader Mitch McConnell
It wasn’t what he’d hoped for.
“I don’t think it’s easy to go from the national spotlight to running for Senate re-election,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky Republican political consultant.
Paul, 53, is at a crossroads, Kentucky political observers say. If he’s still got ambitions for higher office, the next several years present an opportunity for him to burnish his credentials.
He can put his head down and go to work building consensus on important legislation and responding to constituent requests. He can help rebuild a fractured political party that faces an uncertain path forward.
“The Republican Party is going to have to figure out where to go from here,” said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. “Rand Paul is one of the prominent people who could jump into that debate and shape the future of the party.”
The Republican Party is going to have to figure out where to go from here. Rand Paul is one of the prominent people who could jump into that debate and shape the future of the party.
Stephen Voss, University of Kentucky
Paul has the chance to become a player on two big issues: an overhaul of the criminal justice system and a remake of the federal tax code.
He retains a national donor network and is still a big fundraising draw. He connects with younger voters, an age group the Republican Party struggles with.
“I still think the things he’s used to talking about are relevant,” Jennings said. “I seriously doubt his national appeal will go away.”
Paul has introduced 162 bills since he took office in January 2011. Of those, not one has become law, and most have no co-sponsors — not unique for a first-term senator.
Paul’s bills have ranged from auditing the Federal Reserve to protecting Second Amendment rights to rolling back environmental regulations to restoring voting rights for convicted felons.
162 Number of bills that Paul has introduced in the Senate. Not one has become law.
He held up the Senate floor for 13 hours in 2013 to filibuster the nomination of John Brennan to become CIA director. Last year, he sued the Treasury Department and the IRS over how Americans living abroad are taxed. He mounted another 10-hour-and-30-minute filibuster over the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under the Patriot Act.
Paul’s hasn’t always won over his colleagues or his constituents with his approach. But he’s managed not to draw the ire of Senate leadership the way Cruz has done with his open criticism of McConnell. And Paul has not alienated the Republican base like Rubio did with his support of an ill-fated immigration overhaul.
“Paul’s managed to thread the needle between being occasionally a rogue senator while staying within the bounds of acceptable behavior,” Voss said. “I’m pretty sure he’s frustrated them on occasion.”
Paul’s managed to thread the needle between being occasionally a rogue senator while staying within the bounds of acceptable behavior. I’m pretty sure he’s frustrated them on occasion.
But Voss said Paul would have to do more than just signal what he stood for. He needs to master the intricacies of policy before he has another shot at the national stage.
“He’s got the messaging side, but he doesn’t have the gravitas, the substance that allows him to force people to pay attention to him,” Voss said.
Hillary Clinton followed a very similar path. After eight years in the White House as first lady, Clinton won two terms as a senator from New York, and developed a reputation as a hardworking legislator. She immersed herself in policy details in committees and reached out to her colleagues across the aisle.
It made her a better presidential candidate, and Paul could learn a lesson from that.
“I think if Rand Paul wants it bad enough, he can make things happen in the Senate,” Jennings said.
I think if Rand Paul wants it bad enough, he can make things happen in the Senate.
Scott Jennings, Republican political consultant
Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University who’s the chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, said Paul could be in a unique position to bring different sides together on criminal justice or a budget deal.
“The solution’s going to have to come from the middle on the big-ticket items,” he said.
Lasley said Republicans needed a Southerner with strong economic credentials to move the party to a more reasonable place on a budget deal and to give cover to Republicans who worry about a primary challenge from the right. Paul could be the one who checks off both boxes.
“He would be ideally suited,” Lasley said. “I don’t know where the answer would come from if it didn’t come from the South.”
This story has been updated with news of Trump’s victory.