BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul took his first step toward running for president with state party leaders on Saturday endorsing his plan for a presidential caucus in 2016.
The move clears the way for Paul to run for president and for re-election to his Senate seat without breaking a state law that bans candidates from appearing on the ballot twice in the same election.
The state GOP's central committee must still sign off on the proposal in August. But, more importantly for Paul, Saturday's vote by the Republican Party of Kentucky's executive committee was an early endorsement of his unusual plan for dual campaigns ahead of a wide open Republican presidential primary.
"I just want to be treated like many other candidates around the country who have not been restricted," Paul told reporters after the vote.
Paul has characterized himself as a "different kind of Republican," and campaigning for two offices at once would certainly set him apart among the Republican field. Of the numerous potential Republican candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is the only one also up for re-election in 2016. Rubio has said he would not run for both offices.
Paul has gone to great lengths to reach out to minority voters, including sponsoring bills that would eliminate sentencing disparities in what he has called a racially biased criminal justice system and endorsing plans to restore the voting rights of some nonviolent convicted felons. But Saturday's vote was so important that Paul missed the events in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And he missed an agricultural forum in Iowa, an early caucus state, where many of his Republican rivals spoke.
Saturday's vote was unanimous, but it came after two hours of debate behind closed doors. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan made the motion, but he left quickly after the meeting without taking questions from reporters. Both Paul and state party Chairman Steve Robertson said the party was united. U.S. Reps. Bret Guthrie and Thomas Massie attended the meeting and others, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have indicated their support.
"I do think it's important that we kind of move forward with this. And the anxiety is there. I mean, I think about that, too," Guthrie said. "I just think it's worth it. I think it's worth the work."
The state GOP has established a committee to study the issue and have a report ready by the Aug. 22 central committee meeting.
Secretary of State Alison Grimes, Kentucky's chief elections official and a potential Democratic candidate for the Senate, said the caucus proposed by Paul "could create potential chaos in our electoral process and severely undermine the integrity of the Commonwealth's elections."
In a statement, Grimes added, "I call on the Republican Party of Kentucky to provide details on how all their voters would be able to participate and how the party intends to uphold the integrity of the process.
The caucus is a Plan B for Paul, whose earlier attempts to change state law were thwarted by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. And it does not solve his general election problem. If Paul were to win the Republican nomination for president, he would likely need a court order to appear on the ballot twice in November.
Paul also said the caucus, while making it easier for his political ambitions, would make Kentucky more relevant in presidential politics. Kentucky usually holds its presidential primary elections in May, but by then the race for the nomination is often decided. McConnell indicated he would support the caucus only if it was a one-time event that Paul would pay for from his campaign account.
"He's got nearly $4 million in his Senate campaign account. He could cover the cost of the caucus just in what he has on hand now," Paul spokesman Dan Bayens said.
Paul said he will likely announce next month whether he will run for president, months before party leaders would have to finalize plans for a caucus. But Paul admitted after Saturday's vote there would likely be consequences if he did not run for president.
"I think I'll be ex-communicated from the party," he joked.