Over the weekend, as the New York Times reported, Senator Rand Paul hosted Rupert Murdoch at the Kentucky Derby. While we don’t know whether this interesting attempt by the 2016 presidential hopeful to ingratiate himself with the influential media mogul paid off, apparently neither of the two made any money at the track while betting on the ponies. The horse Paul was backing in the big race “died” in the last hundred yards, while Murdoch left Louisville saying that he had “contributed enough to Kentucky.” But Paul’s not done betting on horses that are probably not fated to win.
Yesterday he was in North Carolina campaigning for Greg Brannon, one of the candidates in the Republican senatorial primary. Paul has been fairly cautious in the past few years about trying to exercise influence in this manner but by showing up on the eve of today’s primary, rather than just mailing in an endorsement, he was gambling his reputation on the fortunes of a fellow libertarian who has been trailing frontrunner Thom Tillis by double digits throughout the race.
While there is little doubt about who will finish first tonight in North Carolina, Brannon is hoping to keep Tillis’s vote under the 40 percent mark. That would force a runoff to be held on July 15. As it happens, embattled Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan is hoping for the same outcome. A delay in selecting the GOP nominee would give her an important boost heading into the fall general-election campaign. That is why Hagan has been paying for ads trashing Tillis as a weak conservative who is soft on ObamaCare, a not-so-subtle effort to try and help Brannon, a candidate that is likely to be a much easier opponent for the Democrat. Thus, while Paul may be seeking to enhance his reputation as a conservative kingmaker who can help the Tea Party knock off a candidate who is identified with the Republican establishment, the net effect of his efforts may be to boost the chances of the Democrats holding onto the Senate in November.
If all this sounds familiar, it should.
By using her campaign treasury to undermine the most electable Republican, Hagan is taking a page out of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s underhanded but very successful push to persuade her state’s Republican primary voters to nominate Rep. Todd Akin. That investment paid huge dividends when Akin became her opponent and wound up sinking his own candidacy as well as damaging Republicans around the country with his stupid comments about rape and pregnancy.
As for Paul’s push for Brannon, a victory for the GOP underdog in North Carolina would not only enhance his prestige within the party but also herald a comeback for a Tea Party movement that the national media has been trying to bury for the last year.
But Paul’s clear affinity for his fellow doctor and libertarian shouldn’t deceive conservatives who may be hoping that Brannon is another Ted Cruz who can topple a party favorite and then go on to easily win a Senate seat. Brannon has general-election disaster written all over him. While Hagan’s use of an out-of-context quote to make it appear that Tillis was for ObamaCare is deceptive, there’s no getting around the fact that, like Akin, Brannon is a liberal dream. His controversial comments about food stamps and, in particular, his unwillingness to disagree with a 9/11 truther brand him as an extremist who has no shot at beating a competitive, if vulnerable Democrat like Hagan.
While the key to Paul’s 2016 strategy is clearly to rally the Tea Party behind him, his decision to go all in on Brannon is a mistake. Unwittingly aiding Hagan won’t endear him to most North Carolina Republicans. If his candidate does force a runoff or even somehow wins the nomination that might be a victory that he, and fellow Republicans, would come to regret.