Inside Rand Paul’s downward spiral
He was once a serious contender for the White House. Now, his campaign is fighting over what went wrong.
Rand Paul, once seen as a top-tier contender, finds his presidential hopes fading fast as he grapples with deep fundraising and organizational problems that have left his campaign badly hobbled.
Interviews with more than a dozen sources close to the Kentucky senator, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, painted a picture of an underfunded and understaffed campaign beaten down by low morale.
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They described an operation that pitted a cerebral chief strategist against an intense campaign manager who once got into a physical altercation with the candidate’s bodyguard. And they portrayed an undisciplined politician who wasn’t willing to do what it took to win — a man who obsessed over trivial matters like flight times, peppered aides with demands for more time off from campaigning and once chose to go on a spring-break jaunt rather than woo a powerful donor.
They sketched a portrait of a candidate who, as he fell further behind in polls, no longer seemed able to break through. Paul, lionized as “the most interesting man in politics” in a Time magazine cover story last year, was supposed to reinvent the Republican Party with his message of free-market libertarianism, his vision of a restrained foreign policy and his outreach to minorities.
Instead, he has been overshadowed by louder voices like Donald Trump’s and better-funded figures like Jeb Bush. His theory of the 2016 primary — that Republican voters would reward a candidate who promised fresh ideas and an unconventional approach — has not been borne out in reality.
At Paul’s campaign headquarters on Capitol Hill, morale has begun to sink. At least one key aide recently departed, and others have had conversations with rival campaigns.
“It’s such a negative environment,” said one Paul aide. “Everyone is on edge, and no one is having any fun. They need to recapture some of their positive mojo, and fast.”
Easily the biggest problem confronting Paul is his fundraising — or lack thereof. Paul has taken in just $13 million, a fraction of what all of his major rivals for the Republican nomination have raised and far less than Paul hoped.
Those close to Paul say there’s a simple reason for his lack of success: He’s simply not willing to do the stroking and courting that powerful donors expect. He’s downright allergic, they say, to the idea of forging relationships with the goal of pumping people for dough. And while he’s had no shortage of opportunities to mix and mingle with some of the Republican Party’s wealthiest figures, Paul has expressed frustration that donors want so much face time.
He’s even turned away the Koch brothers. When the billionaire industrialists convene their network of conservative benefactors in Southern California this week, Republican candidates like Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker will be in attendance. But Paul won’t be. The senator, the Koch summit’s baffled organizers said, turned down an invitation. Paul has said he will instead be campaigning in Iowa.
While rival presidential candidates cultivate “sugar daddy” contributors, Paul doesn’t yet have one. Peter Thiel, the eccentric Northern California venture capitalist, had once been seen as the the kind of person who could give millions. But Thiel, who helped to fund Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, is now unlikely to be a major contributor. The senator had once lavished attention on the billionaire — the two had a long lunch meeting at the 2012 Republican National Convention — but no longer does. Since Paul launched his presidential campaign in April, one source said, his personal contacts with Thiel have been few and far between.
At times, Paul has simply seemed uninterested in playing the donor game. Earlier this year, the senator had agreed to speak at the Dialog Retreat, a gathering hosted by Auren Hoffman, a prominent investor with deep ties in the well-heeled Silicon Valley world. But just before he was to appear at Hoffman’s, Paul pulled out so that he could take his family on a spring-break excursion to Florida. Paul’s aides were aghast, realizing they’d missed an opportunity to cultivate the very type of donors likely to be receptive to his small-government philosophy.
A Paul spokesman, Sergio Gor, declined to comment other than to say that “scheduling conflicts come up all the time.” (Hoffman did not respond to requests for comment.)
Paul had once hoped to establish a national network of bundlers who would collect cash from an array of contributors and interest groups. But as he stalls in national polls, those expectations are being scaled back. Former Ambassador Cathy Bailey and South Carolina academic and businessman Mallory Factor were among those once seen as potential major sources of funding, campaign sources said, but have begun to drift away.
In an interview over the weekend, Factor praised Paul, saying he’d make an “excellent president” and vowed to provide him with financial backing. But others were catching his eye. “I’ve spoken to other candidates,” he said. (Bailey did not respond to a request for comment.)
Paul has had to confront another challenge: expanding and professionalizing the activist-driven operation his father Ron used to establish himself as a libertarian force. The senator had once hoped to develop an apparatus that would allow him to nationalize his political brand but instead finds himself with a skeletal operation that has suffered from disorganization and dysfunction.
The confusion starts at the top and dates back to the campaign’s earliest days. One of the first major collisions took place late last year, after Paul tapped Chip Englander, who spearheaded Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s 2014 run, to serve as his campaign manager. At the time, Englander told those around him that he expected to have a broad list of powers typically allotted to campaign managers, including oversight of budgetary decision making, hiring and firing authority and unfettered access to the candidate.
But Paul’s longtime chief strategist, Doug Stafford, had other ideas. Stafford would be running the show, the chief strategist said at the time, while Englander would be the “implementer” — in other words, an administrative position focused simply on making the trains run on time. When word traveled back to Englander, said one source close to the campaign, he vented to others. Among his complaints: Stafford’s decision to bring on Marianne Copenhaver, a Web designer with a history of provocative statements. (For example, in one Facebook post, she wrote: “Side note: A big f—k you to Lindsey Graham and John McCain.”)
Stafford is now on better terms with Englander, who was not bothered by the “implementer” term, campaign sources said. (“‘Implementer’ is a compliment to Chip,” said Gor.) The campaign manager has also taken on some key powers. Englander, for example, played a major role in hiring Tony Fabrizio, a veteran GOP pollster. But the early run-in created uncertainty in an organization that was just getting off the ground.
In Paul world, Stafford and Englander — who share an office in campaign headquarters, their desks just a few feet apart — cut diametrically opposite personalities. While Stafford, Paul’s closest political confidant, has a reputation for being laid-back and introspective, Englander is known to be intense — a “mile-a-minute” kind of guy, in the words of one friend.
At times, some in the campaign have questioned whether his intensity has gone too far — and whether it will ultimately distract from his job of keeping the campaign moving. In April, Englander was in New Hampshire with Paul for a campaign event. The senator was mingling with the crowd while John Baeza, a 280-pound retired New York police detective and Paul family loyalist, stood behind him and provided security. Englander barged over, convinced that the ex-cop was getting in the way of supporters eager to snap pictures with the senator.
“What the f—k, Baeza?” Englander said, grabbing his shoulder. “Why are you always getting in our f—king shot?”
“Don’t ever put your hands on me again,” the bodyguard fired back.
Two aides were taken aback at the treatment of Baeza, who is considered essentially a member of the Paul family. Gor maintained that the interaction was not out of the ordinary. “It would be any senior staff’s duty to ensure staff is not in the way of supporters when Sen. Paul is out on the trail,” he said. (Baeza declined to comment.)
The staff serving beneath Stafford and Englander, meanwhile, is undermanned and overworked. While other presidential candidates have hired multiple aides to oversee their day-to-day scheduling, for example, Paul has only a few. The job is not for the faint of heart: In recent weeks, two overwhelmed schedulers, Cheyenne Foster, who worked on the presidential campaign, and Jessica Newman, who worked in the Senate office, have departed.
Those tasked with crafting Paul’s schedule say the process is like playing a game of three-dimensional chess. Rather than letting his campaign team determine his travel schedule, as is customary for busy presidential candidates, Paul often demands sign-off on minute details, going so far as to request detailed lists of possible flight schedules and routes. Paul — who hascomplained that running for president is “not really a lot of fun” — can be prone to asking for time off the campaign trail and can be prickly about the most mundane commitments. Shortly before attending an event in Monterey, California, last month, he griped about having to do a photo line with supporters even though it had been on his schedule for weeks.
Another worry has been the press office, which has been overseen by two aides, Gor and Eleanor May, both of whom are regarded as competent but lacking the deep experience of many counterparts on rival Republican campaigns. While Bush has filled his campaign with senior communications strategists, Paul has no one playing that role full time.
Paul’s campaign has tried in vain to add more muscle. Stafford, for example, embarked on a months-long quest to woo Josh Holmes, the top architect of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2014 reelection campaign, that began last year and extended into the current one. But Holmes, widely considered a rising Republican Party star, said he was uninterested in getting involved in a primary campaign. He is instead working at a newly established political consulting firm.
Winning over top talent has at times been a frustration. At one point, Stafford talked to Danny Diaz, a hard-charging operative with a knack for digging up opposition research. (Diaz would ultimately accept the job of campaign manager for Bush.) At another, he talked to Jon Downs, a respected media strategist who worked for Paul’s father. (Downs also went to work for Bush.) And early on, before Englander was tapped for the campaign manager job, the Paul team talked to Ward Baker about the post. (Baker, an ex-Marine who played a key role for the party as a strategist in the 2014 midterms, opted for a top job at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.)
Some Paul advisers may be starting to think about their future employment. Rex Elsass, a veteran media consultant who is working for the Kentucky senator, recently had a phone conversation with Beth Hansen, the campaign manager for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. In that conversation, according to one source, Elsass, who formerly worked for Kasich, told Hansen that, if at any point in the future Paul was no longer in the contest, he’d be open to going to work for the Ohio governor should he still be in the race.
In a brief interview on Monday, Elsass insisted that he isn’t interested in jumping. “I’m totally committed — 150 percent — to Rand,” who, he said, would be the party’s best nominee.
“It can’t be that fun over there these days. The candidate is dipping in the polls, the money is tight and it’s hard to tell your message that ‘I’m the anti-establishment candidate’ when Donald Trump is crowding out that base,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who was brought onto Newt Gingrich’s 2012 primary campaign after he endured a summer of turmoil.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint, and candidates will fluctuate in the polls,” said Gor. “Our team will have organizational advantages like no one else. Sen. Paul continues to resonate outside of the D.C. bubble; we’ve had large crowds and enthusiastic support at every single stop.”
But Paul’s problems go beyond money or organization. In a campaign now dominated by other candidates, he has struggled to accomplish perhaps his chief objective: winning over an expansive swath of the Republican electorate, including those who didn’t support his father.
“Paul seems to have lost his mojo in broadening the base of his support,” said Scott Reed, the chief strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Paul’s allies insist that all is not lost. On the fundraising front, while Thiel may no longer be the sugar daddy they hoped he’d be, another major donor may be ready to step up for the senator: Andrew Beal, a Texas banker who has a reported net worth of $11 billion. Beal, a poker-playing libertarian, has contributed $50,000 to a super PAC supporting Paul and may give far more.
There are also indications that Paul recognizes the need to broaden his tight inner circle. Chris LaCivita, a political veteran who orchestrated the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John Kerry; Steve Munisteri, a former Texas Republican Party chairman; and Fabrizio, the longtime party pollster, have taken on increasingly assertive roles in recent weeks.
And in a crowded field of Republican candidates, Paul can lay claim to something few others can: a committed group of activist supporters who will go to work for him.
“Rand has a strong team, and his support has deep, deep roots,” said Jesse Benton, who managed Paul’s 2010 Senate bid and is now overseeing one of his super PACs. “He’ll be just fine.”
But with little cash, and with other candidates like Trump sucking oxygen out of the race, Paul may be running short on time.
“He hasn’t had a great start, and I don’t know whether it’s too late,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns. “Others have stepped into that void, and I don’t see him in the top three or four anymore.”