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The two big things standing between Rand Paul and the GOP presidential nomination

Rand Paul
Rand Paul
Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Sen. Rand Paul's team is looking to launch his presidential campaign around April 2015, according to a Monday report by Politico's Mike Allen. The campaign will be headquartered in Louisville, and Paul will meet a few dozen advisers in Washington, DC this Wednesday to discuss the plans in more detail.

This news should come as no surprise, because Paul's effectively been running for president throughout 2014, in what political scientists call the "invisible primary." This is the process during which party leaders, insiders, and donors begin to decide which candidates to support.

Back in April, Professor Hans Noel of Georgetown University told me these insiders care about two main things: whether a candidate is electable, and whether the candidate's positions are appropriate for the party. "They don't want someone who's less electable, or who would do things the party doesn't want done," Noel said.

It's long been clear that Paul faces problems on both of these fronts. And because of this, his invisible primary bid has been more visible than most, as he's attempted to persuade party elites that he's a nominee they can live with — and had mixed results.

The electability problem

Paul's electability problem is that he's been associated with some controversial people and positions on the far right —and this history would certainly be used against him if he makes it to a general election. Paul mused in 2010 that the Civil Rights Act might have interfered too much with the freedoms of private businesses. One of his former aides "spent years working as a pro-secessionist radio pundit and neo-Confederate activist," as the Washington Free Beacon reported last year.

Then of course there's his father, ex-Rep. Ron Paul, who has a long history of even more controversial associations and comments, and who even this year made several remarks that could be described as "off-message." And Rand's association with his father isn't merely a familial one — Rand "worked as a strategist on Ron Paul's many political campaigns," as Ryan Lizza wrote earlier this year.

Paul has responded by loudly and repeatedly making the case that his political profile and policy positions make him more electable than a standard conservative Republican. Specifically, he wants to appeal to racial minorities and young voters, and argues that his support of criminal justice reform will help him counter what looks like a demographic disadvantage for Republicans in presidential years. Paul also now says he's "never wavered" on the Civil Rights Act.

Additionally, Paul's already won a presidential endorsement from one key GOP establishment figure — soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This endorsement isn't necessarily an incredible surprise, since McConnell and Paul represent the same state and have developed a close working relationship. But it certainly makes it somewhat harder for GOP elites to portray Paul as an unelectable extremist.

The foreign policy fight

Paul's other problem is that his non-interventionist foreign policy views don't fit with those of the more hawkish GOP establishment. So it seemed that either Paul would have to modify his own views to more closely match these elites, or that the elites would have to be persuaded to sign on to a change in the party's direction.

Earlier this summer, it appeared Paul would take the former tack. In June, Mike Allen reported that Paul was planning "a major foreign policy address" to help him "close a gap with establishment Republicans that has been perhaps the biggest hurdle to acceptance of Paul by party elites."

But then, an eventful few months on the foreign policy front ensued. The rise of ISIS has emboldened the GOP interventionists, who have criticized the group as a dangerous threat to America and blasted President Obama for not doing enough to stop them. And according to several polls, the public has grown increasingly hawkish since ISIS began releasing beheading videos.

The rise of ISIS is a serious problem for a Paul presidential run — but he hasn't shrunk back from his skepticism of armed interventionism. Indeed, he seems to have been emboldened. While he supported US airstrikes on ISIS, he's argued that the group's rise in fact proves his point that armed interventions frequently backfire — and that if the US arms anti-Assad Syrian rebels, those arms would just end up in the hands of ISIS.

So when Paul finally delivered that long-awaited foreign policy speech, on October 23, he doubled down. As Zack Beauchamp wrote, "Paul declared war on his own party" in it, and signaled he'd run at the GOP foreign policy consensus "with a battering ram." While positioning himself as a "conservative realist," Paul clearly laid out a case that the US should scale back its commitments to foreign wars, and argued that military interventions often go quite wrong.

Paul seems to have calculated that he'll never win the support of the GOP's foreign policy establishment, and that it's not worth trying to. Instead, he'll attempt to raise money from other circles — Allen reported that he'll open a Silicon Valley office — while betting that he can sell his views to the GOP primary electorate.

Yet Paul's foreign policy problem may not just be with elites. An October Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 41 percent of Republicans said ISIS would be the most important issue affecting their vote this fall. And potential opponents like Chris Christie and Rick Perry have already argued that Paul's foreign policy views are risky and naive, as a way to show off their own hawkish credentials.

There's been a lot of good news for Paul in 2014. No GOP front-runner has emerged yet. Paul's already built "what top GOP operatives consider by far the most extensive operation of any of the party's presidential hopefuls," Allen writes. But the rise of ISIS remains a very tough issue for a candidate known for non-interventionism to deal with. Polls show that the GOP's hawkish instincts remain predominant — so, next year, Paul will have to try and convince voters that those instincts are wrong.

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