Rising in the polls as a 2016 White House contender, Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, is getting a taste of the hard-knocks politics that can accompany an early front-runner.
Mr. Paul, a first-term senator who has captured the fascination of young voters, libertarians and traditional conservatives alike, has suffered some organizational and strategical setbacks even as he shot to the top in a CNN presidential preference poll and was the runaway winner of the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll this month.
In Kentucky, though, the Democrat-led House is refusing to go along with the Republican-controlled state Senate’s plan to make it legal for Mr. Paul to seek the presidency at the same time he is running for re-election.
In Iowa, Gov. Terry E. Branstad has wrested control of the state GOP from one of Mr. Paul’s loyalists after several tense months, putting a twist on the political landscape of the state that hosts the first presidential primary contest.
Mr. Branstad also is examining whether to end the famed Iowa Straw Poll planned in the college town of Ames for 2015 in which Mr. Paul was expected to fare well after his father, Ron, finished a strong second in 2011. The Iowa governor is thinking instead of substituting candidate-voter “festivals” in each of Iowa’s four congressional districts, The Washington Times has learned.
To poll or not to poll
The straw poll has traditionally been an important springboard for non-establishment candidates such as evangelist Pat Robertson, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Mr. Paul’s father, who all finished first or second.
The potential 2016 candidates whose strength emanates from outside Washington’s power structure — Mr. Paul, and Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas — likewise would benefit in fundraising and national exposure from a good showing in the Iowa Straw Poll next year — if it is held.
Mr. Branstad has been saying he believes the straw poll has outlived its usefulness, in part because it allows candidates willing to buy admission tickets and pay for buses to secure favorable votes that don’t necessarily reflect the state’s leanings.
The governor’s idea is getting a cool reception in some corners, where activists fear it could shift power back to big-money establishment candidates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Both men are thought to lack large, ready-made followings in Iowa predisposed to make the long slog to Ames to participate in the straw polling. But critics fear a Christie or a Bush will be able to recruit voters more easily to make short trips to the regional candidates’ festivals.
“Doing away with the Iowa Straw Poll is a point of huge contention,” said Tamara Scott, a Republican National Committee member who also sits on the Iowa GOP central committee.
Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King, both veteran conservatives, “are not in line with Branstad here,” Mrs. Scott said. “And folks are unsure if the Branstad move is coming from the Karl Rove faction of our party or is more of an RNC move, since both the Rove faction and the national party lack control of the process.
“But the purpose is to move away from the advantage where smaller-budgeted, more-conservative candidates can excel,” she said.
Paul ally steps down
At the same time the straw poll debate is raging, one of Mr. Paul’s top lieutenants, A.J. Spiker, is resigning as chairman of the Iowa GOP and will join Rand PAC, the political action committee regarded as Mr. Paul’s 2016 campaign-in-waiting.
Mr. Spiker leaves the state party in good fiscal shape, with $300,000 in cash on hand and no debt. But his management style sparked antagonism among some Iowa Republicans — conflict that he doesn’t want to boomerang on Mr. Paul’s presidential ambitions.
“With me no longer chairman, the press and the rest of the nation will take more notice of Rand Paul’s doing well in the Ames Straw Poll next summer,” Mr. Spiker told The Times in explaining his departure.
The monthslong battle with Republicans who did not like Mr. Spiker’s approach or distrusted his allegiance to Mr. Paul made many Iowa Republicans uncomfortable.
“We’ve had almost two years of a civil war,” said evangelical leader and Iowa GOP Central Committee member Jamie Johnson.
Appearances aside, Iowa insiders say the sudden resignation of Mr. Spiker, a young real estate agent who originally led Ron Paul’s legions of young voters in Iowa, will have little negative effect and perhaps some positive impact on the senator’s efforts in the state.
“Rand and the general ideas he has championed are probably not significantly affected by the Iowa Republican Party deficiencies that are blamed on A. J. Spiker — whom few of us had heard of before 2012 — and the leadership team associated with him,” former Iowa GOP Chairman Kayne Robinson wrote in an email.
“Rand Paul’s views are pretty well received in Iowa, from concern over dangerous adventures in the Syrian civil war and potential over-extension in the Crimea to the massive federal debt and explosive growth of the federal government and to the extent to which the federal government is vacuuming up phone, email and financial data on every American,” Mr. Robinson said.
The stakes for the state party in having a party leadership that doesn’t rub major donors the wrong way are particularly high this year. The more money the Iowa GOP generates, the more it can give to candidates this fall.
“There is a very real opportunity to elect a Republican U.S. senator, and three new Republican congressmen and take Republican control of the Iowa State Senate,” Mr. Robinson said.
Iowa may be the starter gun for the White House race, but Mr. Paul’s other worries are closer to home, where a state law in Kentucky could force him to choose between running for president or seeking re-election to the Senate.
Longtime Kentucky GOP operative Mike Karem is skeptical that Mr. Paul will give up his almost-sure Senate re-election for a chance to run for the presidential nomination and for what might be an even tougher contest against, say, a perceived Democratic powerhouse such as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in November 2016.
Others who know Mr. Paul sense him being tugged toward taking the plunge.
“Rand Paul regards the presidency as a calling, the same as he has regarded his role as senator,” said election laws lawyer Cleta Mitchell, whose clients include top Senate and House members — but not Mr. Paul.
Democrats would like nothing more than to force Mr. Paul to vacate his Senate seat to give them a shot at it in 2016.
Paul chief strategist Doug Stafford has said Kentucky law barring simultaneous runs for two federal offices is unconstitutional and therefore not a serious impediment to a presidential bid even if the state legislature doesn’t recast — or reinterpret — the law in Mr. Paul’s favor.