Over the last week, the hottest topic in American politics has been the Religious Freedom Law in Indiana. Considered a discrimination bill by many, Republican candidates lined up to take a position on the issue. With all that has been said and done, the biggest winner coming out of this might have been Rand Paul.
First, let’s go ahead and backtrack. Once the law was passed and received national media attention, Ted Cruz, the only announced presidential candidate, jump on board and supported the issue. After Cruz’s announcement, a number of other Republicans decided to support the measure.
For someone like Cruz, this decision is a no-brainer. He was expected to take this position. Even others on the religious right, such as Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry, also took similar positions. However, it did seem somewhat our-of-character for Chris Christie and Jeb Bush to take a position which supports the legislation. With Republicans lining up to show support for this issue, nobody really “owns” the issue, and any benefit that could be taken from positioning on this issue has been diluted because of the amount of candidates that support this issue.
Out of those who support it, there are two losers. First, Senator Cruz can no longer grasp this issue as his own. With everyone jumping on board, his support for this law no longer has any real impact in the presidential primary.
Another loser, and possibly a bigger loser, is Jeb Bush. At the beginning of this year, Bush had positioned himself as the “sane” candidate in the Republican field. But with taking this position (as well as the recent reminder of the Terri Schaivo incident), Bush has pushed himself further to the right. There are two problems for Bush on this. First, Bush’s decision on this issue seems more of a political move than him expressing his true feelings on the subject. Second, and more importantly, he might have just removed himself for being a strong candidate against the Democratic Party nominee. As with Mitt Romney is 2012, Jeb Bush will have to move back to the center if he is the nominee. And assuming that Hillary Clinton does not have any opposition, she will not have to make any position shifts to conform to the general election electorate. Therefore, with the support of Indiana’s Religious Freedom law, Jeb Bush’s stock value might have dropped significantly.
Still, there is a candidate that is possibly a winner in this situation, and that is Rand Paul. Unlike his Republican opponents, Senator Paul, wisely, took a position of “no comment”. With this position he does not lose too much from the far right, but he also does not abandon those that are looking for a “sane” Republican candidate.
So, how is this playing out? The recent Quinnipiac poll released on March 31st shows that Senator Paul is performing well against Hillary Clinton, even beating her in Pennsylvania. And with the exception to Jeb Bush beating Hillary Clinton in Florida, Paul’s numbers are the best. As of right now, there is nothing that shows that his “no comment” on the Indiana legislation is a causal factor. However, there does seem to be some sort of correlation between his “no comment” and his increased support in matchup polls against Hillary Clinton. Hopefully, over the next few weeks, we can see what the causal factors are behind the surging Rand Paul.
With these new numbers, Senator Paul might have taken issue ownership over the most salient issue for Republicans…”I am the one that can beat Hillary Clinton”. While many political pundits talk about left-right spatial positions on issues, Republicans (just like Democrats) are looking for the candidate that has the best chance of beating the other guy. In 2012, Mitt Romney was that candidate, with others seeming too extreme. The same goes with John McCain in 2008. Democrats went with John Kerry in 2004, after the famous “Dean scream” scared off voters. In 1996, Bob Dole was the obvious choice to take on Bill Clinton, with Bill Clinton being the obvious choice in 1992 after Mario Cuomo decided not to run, leaving the field open to a group of relatively unknown politicians. Pundits can talk about issues, but this is the issue that matters most in the minds of partisan voters.
Senator Paul might have just taken the lead on this issue. If so, expect to hear a lot more “I am the one that can defeat Hillary” talk coming from the Kentucky senator.