BERKELEY — Nobody should be surprised that Rand Paul got so warm a welcome Wednesday, even in a city whose name is often preceded in conversation by “The People’s Republic of…”
After all, the junior U.S. Senator from Kentucky and likely contender for 2016′s Republican presidential nomination is following in his father’s footsteps by drawing crowds of enthusiastic young followers, particularly on college campuses, wherever he goes.
And his policies — particularly criticizing government surveillance programs, avoiding military actions that aren’t vital to national security, and rethinking the war on drugs — draw voters from across the spectrum, including some of Berkeley’s famed lefties.
“He’s a serious contender,” said Bruce Cain, a political expert who directs Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. “He can come to the Bay Area and plausibly look for money, which is not the case with Sarah Palin or some of the other people on the right.”
The younger Paul has found that money at a series of local fundraisers Tuesday and Wednesday, and tapped his young activist base with a speech Wednesday afternoon at UC-Berkeley’s International House.
In a speech peppered with references to Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″ and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Paul told a crowd of about 400 that he will call for creation of a bipartisan committee to probe and reform the intelligence community. Much like the post-Watergate Church Committee of the 1970s, “It should watch the watchers.”
“Your rights, especially your right to privacy, are under assault,” he said, noting the National Security Agency has said its surveillance programs treat lawmakers like any other Americans.
“Digest exactly what that means. If Congress is spied upon without their permission, who exactly is in charge of the government?”
Just as Edward Snowden broke the law by leaking information about these programs, so too did Director of National Intelligence James Clapper break the law by lying to Congress, Paul said. The nation is under watch by “an intelligence community that’s drunk with power, unrepentant and unwilling to relinquish power,” he said. “The sheer arrogance of this: They’re only sorry that they got caught. Without the Snowden leaks, these spies would still be doing whatever they please.”
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich watched from the back of the room.
“There are not too many people who can get a standing ovation at CPAC and a standing ovation at Berkeley,” said Reich, now a UC-Berkeley professor.
Yet Ericka Chiara, 34, drove down from Oakdale for Paul’s speech because she sees him as “a great voice for a liberty movement in the Republican Party, and he can draw the young voters.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom walked over from the UC Regents meeting to hear Paul speak.
“The issue of privacy is the issue of our time,” Newsom said. “We’re all figuring this out in real-time… and his voice is an important one in this conversation.”
To many, it sounds familiar. Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, might’ve stayed in the 2012 presidential primary campaign all the way through May of that year in part to keep building the national network of youthful volunteers and contributors that his son can now leverage for a 2016 run. The elder Paul raised about $40 million for 2012, finishing a not-so-distant third in the Iowa caucuses and second in New Hampshire’s primary, testament to the strong ground games he had built in both states.
Though he stopped campaigning about a month before California’s 2012 GOP primary, he finished second behind Mitt Romney with about 10 percent of the vote and did better in parts of the Bay Area: 13 percent in Alameda and San Mateo counties, 14 percent in Santa Clara County, and 18 percent in San Francisco.
Throngs of young, screaming Paulites often made his events seem more like rock concerts than political rallies. Even as he lagged badly in delegate counts, Ron Paul’s UC-Berkeley rally in April 2012 drew about 1,200 supporters.
Likewise, a crowd of young supporters carried Rand Paul to decisive victory March 8 in the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll.
His early jump on building networks and enthusiasm might put the younger Paul ahead of most other potential 2016 Republican contenders except for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who both ran before and has a “dark money” group already raising funds and sponsoring his trips around the country — including his visit to the Bay Area this week. Even 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan might not have as easy a time leveraging Romney’s infrastructure as Rand Paul will have leveraging Ron Paul’s.
But the Kentucky senator is making his own inroads, too. His Bay Area visit included a breakfast ($500 to $2,500) and a separate reception ($500) Tuesday at the Olympic Club of San Francisco and a dinner ($1,000 to $5,200) Tuesday night at the city’s Alexander’s Steakhouse; another dinner at the same price was scheduled for Wednesday night at North Beach Restaurant.
“I am a big fan of his courage and leadership on privacy issues and constitutional limits on the government,” California Republican Party vice chair Harmeet Dhillon of San Francisco said after meeting him Tuesday. “He has great things to say about appealing to minority voters, fairness, fiscal restraint and a prudent foreign policy based on US interests.”
Dhillon said the GOP has too many single-issue voters among its activists, “and we often lose elections as a result. Objectively, I would say that 95 percent of what I heard today should be palatable to most Republican and many non-Republican voters. Heck, even some Democrats, because it’s common sense.”
In a Field Poll of California voters last year, Paul trailed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
But Christie is at least temporarily tarnished by his “Bridgegate” scandal. Cruz might’ve lost ground by leading the charge into a government shutdown last fall and then letting the House take the heat. Bush is busy raising support and money for other Republicans, and says he’ll decide his own future by the end of this year.
“There’s nobody who’s running away with it at the moment, so he can plausibly see himself as a contender,” Cain said of Paul. “Whether in the end the party establishment is going to let that happen is another matter.”
Some Republicans fear Paul’s social stances could scare off some of the Christian-based conservative right, Cain said, while his talk of auditing and perhaps ending the Federal Reserve Bank might turn off the financial sector and businesses — a disaster for the party.
“They see this as a problem but it’s too early at this point for them to panic,” Cain said.