BANGOR, Maine — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a tea party favorite for 2016’s presidential contest, said Saturday that efforts to portray him as an “extremist” are unfair. His views, he said, should be very attractive to Maine’s independent-minded voters.
Unenrolled, or independent, voters are Maine’s single largest voting block. It’s the strength of the unenrolled, who shy away from party extremes on either end of the spectrum, that have elected moderates to Congress and independent Angus King to the Blaine House and U.S. Senate.
Paul said that Republicans like him should appeal to those voters, not frighten them away.
“I’m thought to be a sort of libertarian-leaning Republican, and a lot of libertarian views are actually very moderate views,” he said while he waited for lobster to be boxed up at McLaughlin’s Seafood and Takeout in Bangor. Those are “views such as tolerance, views such as that we need to have a less aggressive foreign policy, views such as we have a right to privacy.”
“I think you’ll find there’s a lot of agreements that a sort of libertarian-ish Republican mind find common ground with independents,” he said.
Paul was in town to address the party faithful at the Maine Republican Convention at the Cross Insurance Center. He made the pit stop at McLaughlin’s to meet with reporters and pick up some lobster to bring back on the plane to Kentucky.
Though he’s not yet formally announced his intention to run for president, Paul has been touring the country, making his pitch to voting blocks that have traditionally shied away from Republicans — poor urban voters, black voters, women and young people. Yesterday, he appeared in Boston at Harvard University.
Paul’s effort to grow the party fits in line with the Republican National Committee, which has decreed that the party must expand beyond the white, male base that used to propel it to power. The Kentucky senator said the Maine GOP must do “what Domino’s did,” when the pizza company changed its recipe to win over new customers.
“They said, ‘You know, our crust sucks, and we’ve heard what you’re saying, and we’re going to try to do better,’” he said. “The Republican Party needs to understand the brand isn’t so great, and we need to do better. Some of that is issues, and some of it is just showing up.”
Democrats have welcomed Republicans’ challenge for voters that have traditionally supported Democratic candidates. They say that while the GOP may be reaching out, its views are still anathema to many of those voters.
Yesterday, the Democratic National Committee released a video ad lumping Paul in with Maine Gov. Paul LePage. The two Pauls are “peas in a very extreme pod — using offensive rhetoric to talk about women and African-Americans, while advocating policies that will hurt the middle class in Maine and across the country,” said DNC spokesman Ian Sams.
Paul advocates for some policies that may well be hard sells for the voters coveted by the GOP. He opposes same-sex marriage, abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and affirmative action. He voted against the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which protected gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination, and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
But despite his social conservative bona fides, Paul is no establishment Republican: He holds many views that appeal not only to libertarians in the GOP, but the anti-war, anti-surveillance wing of the Democratic Party. He also is slightly softer on immigration reform than some of those in his own party.
Paul talked most about young people. He said the party’s traditional argument for lower taxes and decreased business regulations are not opposed by millennials, but they aren’t exactly energized by a fiscal message that means nothing to them.
“They don’t have any money. They’re in school, they’ve got student loan debt, and their jobs may not be paying enough to pay their loans,” he said. “What I would say to those kids is, ‘You know what? You’ve got a cellphone. And do you think you ought to have some privacy from the peering eyes of government?’ I think most people do agree with that.”
Paul also said his message of reining in defense spending and ending military adventurism overseas in favor of a more robust border defense should resonate with some liberals and independents.
It’s an issue relevant to Maine, where Bath Iron Works — a shipyard that produces only military destroyers — is the state’s third-largest employer. About 5,000 people work at the shipyard, and their jobs are so dependent on defense contracts that the four unions there recently broke with tradition and endorsed Republican Sen. Susan Collins, rather than the more liberal Democratic candidate, Shenna Bellows.
Workers at BIW are always keen of defense budget fights in Washington. Paul, like Collins, voted in favor of federal sequestration, which imposed broad cuts on government outlays, including billions of dollars in military spending. He also advocates for reining in national defense spending.
Bellows also supports strategic cuts to the defense budget, but has said sequestration was an irresponsible solution.
On Friday, Paul said that while he believes national defense is the number one job of the federal government, he “does not believe in a blank check.”
“I believe everything the government spends money on – even if the military is a priority – that we have to look at our expenses and make sure they’re spent wisely,” he said. “I don’t see myself as a threat to national defense. I see myself as an advocate and champion for national defense.”
Lastly, Paul said two other stalwart Democratic voting blocs — residents of inner cities, where students attend some of the nation’s worst schools, and the poor — should be swayed by the Republican message of school choice and low taxes for all. But Republicans have to go make the pitch.
“I think that message will help with people who’ve said, “you know what, I wasn’t sure about the Republicans, but what the Democrats are doing sure as hell isn’t working.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.