Why Rand Paul Won the North Carolina Primary, by Losing

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 8 2014 8:53 AM

Why Rand Paul Won the North Carolina Primary, by Losing

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Put on a happy face.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The outcomes in Tuesday's North Carolina primaries were probably ideal for Rand Paul. I'm not #slatepitching—I am aware that the Kentucky senator zoomed down to Charlotte for a rally with Republican Senate candidate Greg Brannon, and that Brannon won 27 percent of the vote but failed to force a runoff. But I also liked the way that MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin put it: North Carolina voters were "protecting people from outside North Carolina from finding out who Greg Brannon was." Had Brannon forced a runoff, Republicans would be shaking their clenched fists at Paul for weakening the GOP's eventual nominee in a seat the party badly needs. Had he forced a runoff, more than just Mother Jones and BuzzFeed* would have parsed Brannon's public statements and started publicizing the kookiness of a candidate who thought Marbury v. Madison was wrongly decided and the U.N. was trying to destroy our suburbs.

Still, some media outlets are too focused on the win/loss record. This dispatch from Reuters misses what really happened.

Given that Brannon was precisely the type of risky and divisive candidate the party's mainstream leaders are striving to avoid this year, Paul's endorsement was a mystery to many Republicans and a sign of the difficult line he walks in courting the establishment without alienating his libertarian base.
"He put himself in the wrong camp in North Carolina, and that was a big mistake. When you are running for president, you don't ever want to be with the losers, even if you are making an ideological pick," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
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This is a perfect example of when a reporter should put down the rolodex and pick up a spreadsheet. As Russ Choma reports, the novice Brannon started out in politics by absorbing as much of the Ron/Rand Paul fundraising network as he could. Brannon spent half of his $1.1 million campaign funds on consulting fees to Mike Rothfeld's Saber Communications. That's the same group that handles mail and lots of fundraising for the Pauls—in a story about this earlier in the year, I pointed to a 2013 speech by Rothfeld in which he bragged about issuing "spam" with the Paul brand on it. Brannon's campaign paid Campaign for Liberty's John Tate as a consulant, too. Brannon was a creation of Paul Inc., as he displayed at a fundraiser held down the street from CPAC two months ago. (It's not in this video, but in my tape of the event Brannon calls Ron Paul the "modern-day Thomas Jefferson.")

Despite this, some media covered Paul's Monday rally for Brannon as an "endorsement." No, it was the least he could do in person—he'd endorsed the guy for months. The liberty movement will remember Paul's eleventh-hour campaign stop as one last favor for a true ally. And it's still celebrating the victory of anti-war Rep. Walter Jones over an establishment Republican backed by the Emergency Committee for Israel. Rand Paul did not personally campaign for Jones, dodging the arrows of the hawk right. But if you click the link above, you'll notice that the author praising Jones is Paul's former co-writer Jack Hunter.

*This is not a knock on either publication. All I'm saying is that we never got to the part of the cycle in which larger national media discovered Brannon as a "little-noticed" candidate whose problems had hardly been reported before. See: the late-2011 rediscovery of Ron Paul's newsletters, which had been discovered by TNR's Jamie Kirchick three years previous.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.