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Rand Paul seeks third term stoking controversy, railing against authority

Rand Paul Fancy Farm 2016
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul assailed Jim Gray, his Democratic opponent, at this year's Fancy Farm.
Rand Paul seeks third term stoking controversy, railing against authority

This year’s U.S. Senate contest in Kentucky will see Republican Sen. Rand Paul vying for a third term as he faces his ideological opposite, former Democratic state Rep. Charles Booker.

Over the last two years, Paul has been the face of the crusade against White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, who spearheaded the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The two repeatedly clashed when Fauci testified about the pandemic before Senate committees, with Paul questioning the science around vaccines and other preventative measures, while pushing conspiracy theories that Fauci helped create the virus.

The tactic has been beneficial to Paul’s political aspirations, according to Al Cross, a veteran journalist and the Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. He says Fauci was an easy target for Paul.

“Fauci is the personification of what millions of Americans think is the arrogance of people in public health. I think that is a badly misplaced belief. But Paul is playing on that,” he said.

Paul declined to be interviewed for this story.

Cross said Paul harnessed some people’s very palpable anger towards restrictions during the pandemic. Fauci has been a lightning rod for criticism from Republicans, especially from former President Donald Trump.

University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss says Paul’s crusade against Fauci provides a valuable clue to understanding the junior senator’s appeal to some voters.

“He’s generally made his name with a libertarian assault on the people Republicans dislike. It’s a strong anti-government and anti-authority message and plays into the general suspicion people felt towards COVID regulations,” Voss said.

“As people became more frustrated with the way life just generally changed for the negative during that period, Paul was able to be a visible opponent of those annoyances.”

This isn’t the first time Paul has adopted a controversial position and stuck to it. Since taking office in 2011, he’s burnished his credentials by taking libertarian stances on issues like taxes, foreign policy and aid.

He delayed relief packages for Ukraine, voted against the trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill and was the only Senate Republican who did not oppose renewing the Iran nuclear deal. Paul also attracted much attention in 2015 for waging a 13-hour “talking” filibuster over U.S. drone policy.

A safe seat for Paul

Despite his penchant for picking fights with party leaders, Paul has been a safe bet for the GOP retaining a Senate seat in Kentucky. He was first elected riding the Tea Party wave in 2010, was reelected in 2016 and also garnered national attention that led to a failed presidential run that year.

His relationship with Kentucky’s other U.S. senator, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has proved vital to his career and position as a senator.

But their relationship has been rocky, at times. They both came at odds recently when Paul blocked McConnell’s nominee for an eastern Kentucky federal judgeship.

Paul accused the Republican leader of making "a secret deal with the White House that fell apart." McConnell told the New York Times that Paul’s position on the nomination was "just utterly pointless.”

This tension is par for the course, says Trey Grayson, the former Republican secretary of state of Kentucky who lost to Paul during the 2010 Republican Senate primary race. He says Paul’s relationship with McConnell holds the key to his secure Senate seat in Kentucky.

“McConnell has to look out for the guy in his own state, because of Paul’s ability to both be anti-establishment while being able to have enough establishment credibility to get a vote on the floor. So there is this nice kind of, ‘you help me, I help you’ partnership,” he said.

Grayson said while Paul blocking McConnell’s nomination was not a high moment in their relationship, it’s an exception to the rule.

“It’s important that they don't create unnecessary rivalries, but McConnell has to get Republicans elected and keep the caucus intact, so he’s willing to work with Paul to make sure of that,” Grayson said.

Paul’s framing of the Booker campaign

There’s little polling in this year’s Senate race, but Paul is signaling that he has a safe lead.

He refused to join his Democratic opponent Charles Booker in a televised debate, instead releasing a 3-minute ad. The video suggests that Booker implicitly supports “violence” and threats by what Paul calls "the radical left.” 

Booker responded to the ad, calling it a dog whistle and saying that Paul wants voters to look at the color of his skin instead of his record. 

Republican strategist Tres Watson says many Kentucky voters don’t know Booker, and the ad allows Paul to take control of the narrative and introduce the Democrat on his own terms.

“I think it's just trying to define your opponent and make sure that voters who may not be as familiar with Charles Booker know that he's progressive, even radical for his own party. It’s also a way to get Republicans energized to vote and shift the focus away from the 2023 gubernatorial election,” Watson said.

During Booker’s appearance on KET earlier this month, he said Paul is an obstacle to the state’s progress.

“He has voted against expanding health care," Booker said. "He’s voted against infrastructure. He’s voted against local governments. He’s been our barrier and we need to remove him so that we can win our future.”

The general election is on November 8th. Find your polling place location and voting options at GoVoteKY.com.

This story has been updated.

Divya is LPM's Capitol Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.