In summer 2009, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to have gotten his way. He had successfully strong-armed his cantankerous Bluegrass State colleague Jim Bunning into retirement, and he had cleared the field for the ascension of Trey Grayson, a McConnell favorite and Kentucky’s 37-year-old secretary of state. But an ophthalmologist and first-time candidate named Rand Paul had other ideas. A year later, Paul had clobbered Grayson in the Kentucky GOP primary and was soon raising hell in the Senate. Grayson had packed his bags and accepted a job as director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
With Frank Rich writing an essay in the magazine on Paul’s unexpected rise and influence, we decided to check in with Grayson to see what he now thought of the adversary he once called a “grandstander” with “strange ideas.”
When did you first realize that Rand Paul could be a serious threat to you?
It was when Rand had his first big money bomb. That’s where you encourage a lot of people to give money on one particular day online. It’s like a virtual fund-raiser. His dad had done these money bombs in the presidential race in 2008 and they’d been pretty successful. We were curious how the money his dad could raise would translate to our race. They raised a lot of money. I always thought I was going to beat him, but that was the first time where I said, Wow, maybe there really is something here. He could be a lot more trouble than we thought. This is more than a few diehards. This is real. Money is real.
Fund-raising ability aside, did you think he was a skilled politician?
He wasn’t very good at retail politics. He didn’t shake hands very well. He didn’t work the room. I remember thinking, I can stand here and shake hands, and I’m going to win that comparison. But one of the things that struck me was that at events, his staffers would always say to people, “Have you heard Dr. Paul speak?” They wouldn’t say, “Have you met him?” They would say, “Have you heard him speak?” And it was interesting because he wouldn’t get up there and do all these little pleasantries. He wouldn’t begin with “Hey, it’s great to be here in Johnson County! It’s good to see Senator So-and-So, he’s doing a great job! I love your apple festival in the fall!” He wouldn’t even say, “Thanks for having me! It’s nice to be here!” He would just sort of begin his talk and it would be pretty serious. Even the jokes weren’t very lighthearted. But people would go to his town-hall events and tell their friends, “Hey, I heard this Dr. Paul guy, you should go hear him speak, he made some really good points.”
Why do you think people responded to him like that?
One thing that Rand is able to do is to persuade people. In our race, if he was going to give you an answer you weren’t going to like, he would give it to you in a way that wouldn’t offend you. It might even make sense to you. And you might even end up thinking that he agreed with you. In late 2009 and 2010, one of the big issues was the surge in Afghanistan. I supported it, and he didn’t. But if you asked him about it, he wouldn’t say, “I don’t support it.” He would pivot to how he supported a declaration of war in Afghanistan in 2001 because that’s where the Taliban was and they attacked us on 9/11. The other way he could have answered that same question was, “I don’t support a surge because we shouldn’t be in Afghanistan anyway because we didn’t authorize war, therefore what we’re doing is unconstitutional.” Essentially those two answers say the same thing [because there was no formal declaration of war on Afghanistan], but the first way is much more palatable. Rand is a lot better than his dad at making his vision sound appealing.
Did you ever expect him to have such an impact on the party and the national debate in general?
I remember thinking when Rand got elected, All right, he wants to go shake things up. He’s not going to roll up his sleeves and try to legislate, Rand is going to try to play from the outside. The normal recommended course when you get to the Senate is to sit back, take your time, learn to be a good senator. Rand gave a speech on the Senate floor really early on where he stood at the Henry Clay desk and criticized Henry Clay for being a great compromiser. It got huge national attention.
Now, if you look at Rand’s legislative record, he doesn’t really have one. He hasn’t really sponsored anything that’s passed or helped to negotiate anything. But he clearly has influenced the debate. His was an important voice that caused a lot of Republicans who otherwise might have said they were for doing something in Syria to either say no or not say anything. I see his influence back in Kentucky, too. It’s not like he has a lot of acolytes in the party in Kentucky, but a lot of the people who were “my people” sound a lot more like Rand Paul than they would have two or three years ago.
A lot of people think that Mitch McConnell has started to sound a lot more like Rand Paul too. There was a Huffington Post profile of McConnell this summer that said the joke around Washington was “If you want to know where McConnell stands on an issue, just ask Paul.”
[Chuckles.] That’s funny. I think there are a couple different reasons for that. When you’re the party leader, you probably don’t want to have a thorn in your side be the guy in your party from your own state. Part of it is also that McConnell wants to stay in control of the body. As the leader, you’ve got a caucus and you’ve got to try to keep the caucus together. And McConnell wants to get reelected. I’m sure he has learned lessons from watching some of the folks who lost primaries. I’m sure he’s learned lessons from my race.
Is Rand Paul a better politician now than he was when he beat you?
He’s gotten a little more disciplined with some of his comments, and he’s also shown a willingness to take a liability and try to turn it around. The other day, he gave a speech in Louisville where he talked about how he wanted to restore felony voting rights in Kentucky and around the country. He even said there ought to be a federal law, which goes at odds with the libertarian position on it. But I think he recognizes that one of the things that he needs to overcome is the perception that he’s insensitive on race.
Did you ever imagine we’d be talking about him as a 2016 front-runner?
I think there was a sense from the beginning that he could be the guy—Ron Paul paved the way; Rand could actually be elected. You could see that among the Ron Paul supporters in how they accepted the fact that Rand wasn’t quite as hard-core and angry as his dad. But I don’t think that anybody would have thought on Election Night in 2010 that three years later he’d be a top-tier presidential candidate.
Do you welcome the idea of him as the GOP standard-bearer?
I think Hillary Clinton is going to be a pretty formidable candidate, and we need somebody who can compete with her. I’m not sure that a more libertarian nominee is the right type to get to 51 percent, whether it’s Rand or somebody else. I still disagree with him on foreign policy. I think the party has swung too far to the isolationist side of things, and I hope that the country survives this. But if he’s the nominee, I’m for him. I’m a Republican; I’m not going to leave the party.
*This article originally appeared in the September 30, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.