The Prodigal Paul Returns (To Texas)

Texas will be playing a critical role in the 2016 Republican Primary—and Rand Paul is laying his groundwork.

Some presidential hopefuls like to play coy with their intentions—not Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. A little less than two years out from the New Hampshire primary, Paul gave Washington Post reporter Robert Costa a look at his burgeoning national fundraising infrastructure—Paul is “the first Republican,” Costa writes, “to assemble a network in all 50 states as a precursor to a 2016 presidential run.” Paul, dogged a bit by the cultural memory of his father, longtime Texas congressman Ron Paul, is trying to establish himself as a legitimate and serious presidential contender well in advance of his run.

One odd thing about this year’s primary elections: Kentucky’s junior senator, Paul, has been more active in Texas legislative elections than Texas’ junior senator, Ted Cruz. Cruz decided early he wouldn’t be making endorsements in contested primaries. (Though there’s been no shortage of Texas pols implying they have his support.) That may be principle—he said he thought the voters should decide, not him—or it could be a neat solution to the tricky problem of whether to endorse establishment figures like John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell, who wield great power in the GOP but are not well-loved by Cruz’s base. (That’s an issue that’s posed some difficulty for Paul.)

Cruz abstained, but Paul made his mark in the Texas primaries. He was perhaps the most important supporter of Don Huffines, the prodigious self-funder who narrowly defeated state Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas). Paul made national waves when he traveled to Texas to campaign for Huffines, who he described as a longtime family friend. Paul’s support of Huffines brought other benefits—Glenn Beck campaigned for Huffines in turn.

Paul has supported other Texas candidates. Here’s the slightly odd video message he made on behalf of state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), a tea party favorite who was in the middle of a race that briefly appeared competitive.

Paul, of course, has a strong personal connection to Texas. He grew up on the Paul family homestead in Lake Jackson, and went to Baylor University. But his activity in Texas is interesting for a couple of other reasons.

In 2016, the state will be playing a more important role in the Republican presidential primary than it ever has before. The GOP has tried to streamline and shorten its primary calendar, and the first four contests—New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina—have been pushed to February. March 1 will see the process open up, with primaries in other states. Texas is one of them. It’ll be the first big state, and a huge electoral prize.

Moreover, the rules of the 2016 Texas primary are tricky—meaning the state could be a rich vein of delegates for multiple candidates in a crowded field. If any one candidate receives at least 51 percent of the state’s primary vote, he takes all the state’s delegates. But that’s unlikely given how early Texas is in the primary calendar—things usually don’t shake out that quickly. If no candidate wins a majority, all of the candidates who win more than 20 percent split Texas’ large pool of delegates—meaning that candidates who might not be able to win the state’s primary outright have a healthy incentive to compete.

Rand Paul notched an important victory when Huffines beat Carona. And by endorsing figures like Stickland, he’s making an appeal to the state’s conservative base. He’ll face competition. Unusually, the 2016 contenders feature four candidates with connections to Texas: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who’ll have a healthy network waiting for him in the state if he chooses to run.

The four could face figures like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, who would seem to have little organic appeal to Texas conservatives. When Texas played a small role in the 2008 nomination contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it felt like an unusual event. Paul’s endorsements foreshadow a much brighter spotlight on Texas.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 4:26 pm CST