Is Sen. Rand Paul the new Steve Bannon, the former Trump aide who promised to wage a “season of war” on the Republican establishment and champion like-minded conservatives?
Paul, a Kentucky Republican, has endorsed two Senate candidates who definitely aren't favorites of GOP standard bearers: Kelli Ward in Arizona and Mike Gibbons in Ohio.
Ward has suggested Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is battling brain cancer, should quit the Senate as soon as possible and Gibbons is a novice businessman up against a sitting congressman who has President Donald Trump and the Ohio Republican party's stamp of approval.
The Paul endorsements come as Senate Republicans are playing offense on a Senate map that strongly favors them. The GOP is eager to avoid messy primary battles that could benefit Democrats who see bright prospects for taking control of the chamber in November.
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A Paul spokesman for Paul brushed aside concerns that the senator could complicate Republican efforts.
"Senator Rand Paul believes that we must elect individuals who will break the current mold of bigger government, more debt and endless foreign intervention," spokesman Sergio Gor said, adding that Paul looked forward to welcoming Ward to the Senate.
The Arizona seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake is one that Democrats are hoping to flip. Republicans are mired in a messy three-way race with Ward, immigration hardliner Joe Arpaio and Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz. McSally is the front-runner and presumed establishment favorite.
In Ohio, Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown is looking to fend off a challenge from Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, who dropped out of the race for governor last month and launched a Senate bid. Paul endorsed Cleveland businessman Gibbons, calling him a fiscal and constitutional conservative.
Paul campaigned Friday night for Ward in Arizona, railing against his fellow Republicans for supporting a recent spending bill he had protested on the Senate floor. He derided McSally as “Martha McSpender,” calling her a "fake conservative" and a “RINO” or Republican In Name Only.
“If you elect the establishment candidate, you are going to get more of the same,” Paul told a crowd in Scottsdale. “You need someone with the courage of their convictions. If they do not have the courage of their convictions, they will be a rubber stamp for leadership.”
Bannon had pledged to boost a number of hardline conservative GOP primary challengers, worrying more mainstream Republicans, given his close ties to Trump and access to deep-pocketed donors. His influence largely collapsed last month after Trump repudiated him in the wake of a book which quoted Bannon as harshly critical of the president’s family.
Paul’s endorsements haven’t sparked the same level of concern, Republican strategists said. While Paul’s supporters are ardent, his influence is limited, particularly in races where Trump has endorsed. Rand Paul, who unsuccessfully sought the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, and his father Ron, a former Texas congressman and Republican presidential candidate, have found pockets of strong support but outside of their home terrain have not been able to develop a broader constituency.
“He marches to his own drummer in a way that’s really unique and I don’t think that surprises anybody,” said veteran Republican strategist Doug Heye. “He views the world from a slightly different lens that most of his Republican colleagues.”
“It’s just Rand being Rand,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant who has worked for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “When Obama was president, people were looking to (Paul) on some occasions to see where the non-establishment is, but with the president in the room, I think people care most about where he (Trump) is.”
McConnell acknowledged in a New York Times interview Friday that the party could lose seats in the House and Senate, given Democratic enthusiasm and Trump’s unpopularity. Officials at the McConnell-affiliated Senate Leadership Fund, which spent nearly $86 million in the November 2016 election to benefit Republicans, declined to comment. But Jennings said Paul’s picks are not an issue for McConnell, Paul’s fellow Kentucky Republican.
“He’s used to it,” Jennings said of McConnell’s view of Paul’s propensity to go his own way. “The greater annoyance would be if the president were doing this sort of thing.”
Trump is increasingly in line with McConnell. On Monday, the president endorsed Mitt Romney for the open Senate seat in Utah, calling him a “worthy successor” to Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican whom Trump had urged not to retire. The endorsement came three days after McConnell called on Trump to back Romney's bid for the seat.
“Given the overall landscape of how this could have gone, he’s overall pretty happy with the way things are setting up,” Jennings said, noting that Bannon could have played a disruptive role. “McConnell and Trump are essentially aligned on all of these Senate races and we don’t have an antagonist that has the imprimatur of the president out there trying to upend what you’re trying to do.”