LOVELAND, Ohio ― Rand Paul says he’s not trying to oust his fellow Kentuckian, Mitch McConnell, from his seat atop GOP leadership in the Senate. But some of the candidates he’s supporting sure are.
Paul, a former presidential contender, came to a convention center in this Cincinnati suburb on Thursday to campaign for Mike Gibbons, an investment banker running for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Gibbons is facing Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), who has the backing of both McConnell and President Donald Trump, in next week’s primary.
Gibbons, along with several other candidates Paul is backing, has refused to support McConnell as majority leader. Paul is also supporting state Sen. Kelli Ward in Arizona, who is directly challenging McConnell-backed Rep. Martha McSally. Another candidate he’s backing, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, indicated he wouldn’t back McConnell during a Fox News debate earlier this week.
This handful of candidates poses no real threat to McConnell’s leadership. But the endorsements show how Paul is still trying to shape the Senate Republican conference in a more libertarian, anti-establishment direction, even as he’s come under fire for eventually supporting both the GOP tax law and the confirmation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after initially threatening to torpedo both.
“We’re really trying to find people who aren’t beholden to leadership,” Paul told reporters after the Gibbons rally. He later added he wasn’t specifically referring to McConnell: “It isn’t so much about a person. And I’m trying not to make it about a person. Frankly, I’m trying to keep good relations with my fellow senators.”
“It’s not about him so much as it is about leadership in general,” he said. “Whenever I think of leadership, I think ‘Dear Leader,’ and this structure that isn’t really American.”
Gibbons wasn’t as diplomatic.
“The guy I’m running against was recruited by Mitch McConnell. Do you think he’s not going to go with him on every single thing?” he said. “I’m proud of the fact that [McConnell] isn’t supporting me.”
Renacci remains the front-runner in the contest and is airing ads that emphasize Trump’s endorsement of him ― although the high number of undecided voters in public polls indicates a Gibbons victory remains possible. Renacci dismissed Paul’s backing of Gibbons as insignificant.
“I’m humbled to have the President of the United States and the entire Ohio Republican party supporting my campaign,” he said in an emailed statement. “I am glad to see he found someone from Kentucky to support his.”
Besides Gibbons, the candidates Paul is supporting are a mixed bunch. Ward, who previously challenged occasional Paul nemesis John McCain during the 2016 cycle, is in a three-way race with McSally and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to secure the GOP nomination for outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat. Morrisey is locked in a battle with Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins in West Virginia. Montana Auditor Matt Rosendale is the front-runner to battle Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat. All three had the backing of former White House strategist Steve Bannon when he was plotting to oust McConnell before his political self-immolation in January.
Political consultants with strong ties to Paul are also deeply involved in two of the contests. Gibbons’ senior adviser is Michael Biundo, who worked for Paul’s 2016 presidential bid. And Jesse Benton, a former Paul aide who was convicted of conspiracy and other charges for his role in a bribery scheme during the runup to the 2012 Iowa caucuses, is working for both a super PAC supporting Ward and for Maine state Sen. Eric Brakey’s campaign for U.S. Senate. (The Daily Beast first reported Benton’s resurgence.)
Meanwhile, Paul has endorsed primary candidates in two races ignored by most Republican senators: He’s supporting state Del. Nick Freitas for the nomination to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and backing Brakey to challenge Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats.
Freitas and Brakey, who are both running in contested primaries, are ideological soul mates for the libertarian-minded Paul, and Brakey previously worked for former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) ― who is Rand Paul’s father ― when the elder Paul mounted presidential bids. As a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2016, Brakey argued for a host of libertarian policy proposals, including the legalization of medical marijuana. Freitas recently ignited a firestorm with a passionate defense of gun rights on the floor of the Virginia legislature.
“We’re looking for people who are conservative first and party second,” Paul said, noting he wants candidates who share his vision of a Constitution that dramatically limits the size of the federal government.
During the Loveland rally, in front of a crowd of about 100 people, both Paul and Gibbons warned of the exploding national debt, and emphasized their status as political outsiders and their support for term limits. “When the Republican Party gets in charge, there is no conservative party,” Paul said to applause as he lambasted the spending bill passed by the GOP Congress and signed into law by Trump in March.
“I’m not looking for the lesser of two evils,” Paul said. “If there’s a race with two Republicans, and I think both Republicans are establishment schmucks, I’m not going to endorse either one of them.”