The Rand Paul phenomenon seems to have crossed the river into Ohio.
Actually, the popularity of the junior senator from Kentucky has crossed a lot of boundaries in recent months – the point where he is considered by many a legitimate contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Before the 2010 election, he was a practicing ophthalmologist, running a clinic down in Bowling Green, Ky. It was his father who was the famous one – then-Texas congressman Ron Paul, who has run three times for president as a Libertarian and a Republican.
The younger Paul’s rise in politics coincided with the rise of the tea party movement, which embraced him and his Libertarian beliefs. He won the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate that year; and easily defeated Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway in the general election.
He’s hot stuff in Kentucky. In the Commonwealth, the polls show that he is vastly more popular than the senior senator, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who is running for re-election next year and is busy courting Paul’s tea party supporters.
Nationally, he is seen as one of two things: a new kind of Republican, outside the mainstream and far more interesting than the McCains and Romneys and other mainstream GOP presidential candidates; or he is seen as one of the bottle rockets of American politics – a missile that shoots high into the sky, creates a dazzling light show and then fizzles out before hitting the ground with a thud.
Too early to tell.
Nonetheless, it was something of a surprise this week when the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which polls in key battleground states, came out with a poll of Ohio voters which said, among many things, that Paul is in a virtual dead heat with Hillary Clinton when matched up for the presidency in 2016.
Clinton, who is likely to run, had 47 percent to 44 percent for Paul – within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Quinnipiac did head-to-heads with only two of the many potential GOP presidential candidates – Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Christie and Clinton were at a dead heat – 42 percent each.
They also matched up Paul and Christie with Vice President Joe Biden, another potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. Christie and Paul mopped the floor with Biden – an 18 percentage point lead for Christie, a nine percentage point lead for Paul.
Now, Ohio is most assuredly not reliably red Kentucky. Ohio, the bellwether state, the perennial swing state, is most decidedly purple – tinged blue when it comes to presidential contests.
Kentucky gave slim margins to Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and has been solidly Republican ever since. But, in four of the last six presidential elections, Ohio has gone for the Democratic presidential candidate.
Could Rand Paul, GOP nominee, actually win Ohio in 2016?
Too soon to tell, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’ Center for Politics and a veteran of Ohio politics and journalism.
Kondik takes the Quinnipiac poll with a grain of salt.
“Make no mistake, Quinnipiac is a reputable polling institute; it does good work,’’ Kondik said. “But, in this case, it seems like their polling is a little too friendly to Republicans.”
He said the Quinnipiac Poll of Ohio voters showed 82 percent white, while the exit polls from 2012 showed white voters in Ohio are 79 percent.
“It doesn’t sound like much, but even a few percentage points can skew a poll,’’ Kondik said.
But whether Quinnipiac is right or wrong is beside the point, Kondik said.
“I have a hard time seeing Rand Paul winning the nomination in his own party,’’ Kondik said. “He is going to be perceived by too many mainstream Republicans as too far out there for their tastes. They tend to go with the mainstream types, like Mitt Romney or John McCain.”
Larry Sabato is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics; and he publishes a regular “Crystal Ball” column that rates candidates for the House, Senate, governorships and the presidency.
The latest Crystal Ball ranking of potential GOP presidential candidates has Paul in the second tier of contenders, just above Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
Paul’s positives according to the Crystal Ball: “tea party favorite, strong support from the libertarian GOP wing, national ID and fundraising network.”
Paul’s negatives? “Too libertarian? Association with out-of-the-mainstream father. Too dovish/eclectic for GOP tastes.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tops the first tier of GOP contenders in the Crystal Ball, followed by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey’s Christie.
“If Rand Paul were a serious candidate for president in 2016, it would represent a sea change in the Republican Party,’’ Kondik said.
He may end up, Kondik said, being perceived by GOP primary voters as Robert A. Taft of Ohio was in the 1940s and early 1950s. The original Bob Taft, senator from Ohio, son of a president and grandfather of a governor.
Taft lost the presidential nomination to Thomas Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1940s and 1952 mainly because his extreme isolationist views on foreign policy were considered too extreme.
It’s too early to tell if Rand Paul will become the new Bob Taft (the original version, that is).
But, as things stand now, Quinnipiac shows that there are a whole lot of Ohioans who take him seriously as a presidential candidate.