As Rand Paul jumped into the race for president during a Tuesday rally in Louisville, Kentucky, the senator articulated a vision of a big tent Republican Party, while making clear he has no desire to talk about LGBT rights.
“This message of liberty is for all Americans, Americans from all walks of life. The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor,” Paul said. It’s that kind of hopeful tone that has attracted Paul an enthusiastic following since he rode the tea party wave into the Senate in 2010. But it’s his personal views on the issues he shies from that could damage that support.
“In order to restore America, one thing is for certain, though: We cannot, we must not dilute our message or give up on our principles. If we nominate a candidate who is simply Democrat Light, what’s the point? Why bother?” Paul said.
Paul went on to talk about the topics that are often the focus of his speeches: spending, government surveillance and foreign policy. Unspoken were social issues such as same-sex marriage that Paul seems less comfortable talking about.
Although same-sex marriage is an issue he will begrudgingly address from time to time, Paul’s opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is well documented. During an interview with Fox News last month, Paul said the idea of same-sex marriage “offends” him.
“I think marriage is between a man and a woman,” Paul said. “We could’ve fixed this a long time ago if we’d just allowed contracts between adults, if we didn’t have to call it marriage, which offends myself and a lot of people. But I think having competing contracts that would give them equivalency before the law would’ve solved a lot of these problems and it may be where we’re still headed.”
Last summer, Paul said he was “in favor of the concept” of amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. “As far as whether we should do it at the federal level or the state level, I don’t want to register my guns in Washington or my marriage. And that may not please everybody but historically our founding fathers didn’t register their marriage in Washington, they registered it locally at the court house,” Paul said, according to a recording of the event from Radio Iowa. “I’d rather see it be a local issue, not a federal issue.” And when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision in the Windsor case, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act defining for federal purpose marriage as between a man and a woman, Paul told ABC News he thought the decision was appropriate and that the issue should be left to the states. “As a country we can agree to disagree,” Paul said. “As a Republican Party, that’s kind of where we are as well. The party is going to have to agree to disagree on some of these issues.”
Paul is only the second Republican to formally declare his candidacy for president. Last month, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy during a speech at Liberty University that called not for a broader Republican base, but the mobilization people of faith. “Instead of a federal government that works to undermine our values, imagine a federal government that works to defend the sanctity of human life and to uphold the sacrament of marriage,” Cruz said. (Cruz said in a statement Paul’s entry into the presidential race “will no doubt raise the bar of competition, help make us all stronger, and ultimately ensure that the GOP nominee is equipped to beat Hillary Clinton and to take back the White House for Republicans in 2016.”)
Paul is not expected to run the same kind of campaign as Cruz, but he will undoubtedly be competing for the votes of the same social conservatives Cruz is courting. It’s the competition for social conservatives that could prove problematic for the libertarian image Paul has garnered and the enthusiastic support he has secured among younger voters. Indeed, a CNN/ORC poll conducted earlier this year found 70 percent of Americans under the age of 50 believe same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. And a recent YouGov/Huffington Post poll found 32 percent of respondents said they would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who supports same-sex marriage, with 33 percent responding a candidates views on the issue do not matter. Only 24 percent were more likely to support a presidential candidate opposed to same-sex marriage.
Paul has made a number of stops to college campuses, including Howard University and Berkley. He’s repeatedly received the warmest reception at CPAC, a gathering far more popular among younger conservatives than those catering to social conservatives. While shifting public opinion on LGBT rights is a political reality Paul does not seem eager to address (during an interview with CNN last year Paul replied with a shrug when asked if he might rethink his position on same-sex marriage one day), he may not be given much of a choice.
Shortly after his presidential announcement, the Human Rights Campaign called on Paul to weigh in on Indiana’s religious freedom law. “Given that he has opposed ENDA, which would give LGBT workers express protection against discrimination in the workplace, Rand Paul needs to join the rest of the candidates and say whether he agrees that Mike Pence did the right thing when he signed a bill in Indiana that put LGBT Hoosiers at risk for discrimination,” said JoDee Winterhof, HRC’s vice president for Policy and Political Affairs. Unlike Cruz, Jeb Bush and others, Paul hasn’t spoken out on the Indiana law, or other religious freedom measures.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fl.), chair of the Democratic National Committee, also shot back at Paul’s “different vision” for America. “He says he’s something different, but when you take a look, he’s the same as any other Republican presidential hopeful,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “This is a classic example of a GOP presidential candidate thinking he can talk his way into our communities while turning his back on us when it comes to his policy prescriptions. Not only is Rand Paul not going to make the GOP’s tent any bigger, the tent actually collapses under the weight of his harmful policies,” she continued, accusing Paul of belittling LGBT rights.
Support for same-sex marriage is often considered a libertarian value. Even the libertarian Cato Institute filed a brief in the same-sex marriage cases before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing state bans on same-sex marriage create a “broad class-based regime denigrating and denying fundamental rights and benefits to an unpopular minority.” But Paul has often walked a fine line on LGBT issues, harboring his own personal opposition while vowing to expand the GOP to all walks of life. “The party can’t become the opposite of what it is,” Paul told New York Times Magazine last year. “If you tell people from Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia, ‘You know what, guys, we’ve been wrong, and we’re gonna be the pro-gay-marriage party,’ they’re either gonna stay home or — I mean, many of these people joined the Republican Party because of these social issues. So I don’t think we can completely flip. But can we become, to use the overused term, a bigger tent? I think we can and can agree to disagree on a lot of these issues. I think the party will evolve. It’ll either continue to lose, or it’ll become a bigger place where there’s a mixture of opinions.”
As a senator, that vision of a more inclusive Republican Party has garnered Paul support from unlikely places. But presidential politics is about the views of an individual. And how Paul’s personal views play with a changing general electorate remains untested.