MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Just before the Republican debate last year in Colorado, a senior aide to Rand Paul had an idea.
Sergio Gor, the campaign’s communications director, decided he wanted to obtain an eagle for Paul to appear with before the debate.
Staffers were dispatched to try to find the eagle to rent, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the incident. One estimated that several people spent half a day on the task. Eventually a falcon was located, but by that point the scheme had leaked out to other staffers, who quashed it.
“We spent like half a day on this ridiculous project that I’m not even sure was approved by the higher-ups,” said one staffer. After that, other staffers nicknamed Gor “Condor.”
The episode is emblematic of the scattershot approach that characterized much of Paul's bid, which he ended on Wednesday. Once dubbed the “most interesting man in politics,” Paul seemed destined for a key role in 2016, his libertarian views promising an ideological clash for the direction of the Republican Party.
But Paul never gained traction. He moved leftward and rightward on various issues. His campaign tried various gimmicks — from taking a chainsaw to the tax code to livestreaming his day. He struggled to raise money, never securing the support of billionaire libertarian backers, or building the kind of grassroots army that powered his father and is powering Bernie Sanders. Insiders say he just didn’t have the personality required to fundraise.
And he never had much influence on the other candidates, either. On the issues, Ted Cruz deftly coopted libertarian positions, and Donald Trump’s dominance of the media coverage of the campaign never gave Paul the kind of exposure he had in 2013 and 2014. Conflicts between staff, particularly in the press operation, hamstrung normal campaign operations, a half dozen sources say. In the end, though some expected him to hang on till after New Hampshire, Paul decided to exit the race after Iowa.
In a conference call Wednesday morning, Paul’s advisers said he made his decision to drop out in the last 24 hours after determining that "there wasn't much he could do to fix the trajectory of the race." Paul will not be endorsing in the GOP primary, but will go on to support the party’s eventual nominee.
“He flew back from Iowa and thought about it and decided it was the right time to do that sometime yesterday,” said Doug Stafford, Paul’s chief strategist.
Stafford and other advisers insisted that Paul had stuck to his libertarian message throughout the campaign — as opposed to the compromises that many believe Paul made on policy to broaden his appeal — and had a well-organized ground game in Iowa, despite coming in fifth place. Instead, they pointed to Trump and the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino as factors that changed the dynamic of the race.
"The change in trajectory on the issues and the outsized attention given to one outsider made it very difficult to get our message out,” Stafford said. Specifically on Trump’s rise, Stafford added: “We definitely believe it sucked the oxygen out of the room during critical times."
Trump’s omnipresence made it impossible for Paul’s message to break through widely.
“The difficulty raising money, the competition in his space, and the Trump phenomenon filling up so much of the media — he was just never able to sell his message,” said one Paul insider.
Compounding the issues with getting the message out was dysfunction in the press operation, sources say.
“They didn’t have a serious communicator there to drive message,” the Paul insider said.
For much of the time, there was serious tension between the other press staffers and Gor, who ran the communications shop and was one of few staffers who had Paul’s ear and traveled with him frequently. Gor was the main point of press contact for reporters with the campaign and his title, communications director, connotes a certain level of message-shaping on a campaign. But five sources said Gor was a polarizing figure who alienated colleagues and was difficult to work with. One former adviser referred to Gor as “Kurt Bardella on steroids,” comparing him to the hard-charging former Darrell Issa spokesman. Five sources told BuzzFeed News that the rest of the press shop moved to the basement of campaign headquarters in D.C. in the fall, in order to physically get away from Gor.
“We wanted to stay up there but after October we all moved down there permanently,” said one campaign staffer, referring to their own decision to move downstairs.
“It was to get away from him for a number of reasons,” said one source close to the campaign.
When reached for comment, Gor said, “Our press staff was sent out on the road, not into the basement.”
Chief strategist Stafford dismissed BuzzFeed News’ reporting on Gor and other issues for this story as “utter crap from people who know nothing.”
“Hope you're not printing factually wrong items, but whoever is talking to you clearly has no clue what they are saying,” Gor said.
One thing that gave Gor leverage was that out of the press staff, he was the most frequently out with Paul on the trail, which made him one of the people in the campaign with the most access to the candidate, along with top figures in the campaign like Stafford. But several sources said Paul didn’t seem particularly aware of the problems with his staff.
“I honestly think that Rand was not in the loop of a lot of the stuff that was going on,” said one staffer.
Problems within the campaign started spilling into public view over the summer, when infighting between Stafford and campaign manager Chip Englander began leaking out in the press, along with details of Paul’s lackluster approach to fundraising.
Paul’s aloofness and allergy to glad-handing is a central part of his persona and, for many people, part of his appeal. But it did not help the campaign with donor recruitment and maintenance.
“Rand is not the kind of person who’s phony, and the process of courting donors and faking friendships and sort of wooing folks and building a finance team is just not something that he did much of,” said on Paul insider. “It was an underfunded operation and the lack of money led to a narrative that the campaign was unable to overcome.”
The insider said “I’m sure they were disappointed” that top libertarian donor Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, didn’t offer his financial support. Thiel was a major backer to Paul’s father’s presidential campaigns, but he gave $2 million to a pro-Carly Fiorina super PAC in August.
Early in the 2016 cycle, Charles Koch, who golfed with senator, was believed to be especially impressed with him. (The Kochs have said they wouldn’t endorse in the primary, but at one point David Koch was said to like Scott Walker, which was seen as a blow to Paul.)
Other donors were left confused by Paul’s apparent shifting positions on some issues and by interactions with his staff.
Frayda Levy, a major GOP donor who has contributed to Paul and super PACs supporting his White House bid, said, “It felt like he was tacking too much to the right on immigration, tacking too much to the right on foreign policy.”
“Look, he was my guy. I knew he had a lesser chance. But as he moved farther to the right, I said I might as well go with the guy who at least has a better chance of winning,” Levy said.
Levy and other donors spoke to his staff on a few different occasions, questioning what Paul had said publicly on certain issues. But they eventually stopped reaching out after getting the same answer. “They’d usually just say this is what he actually believes.”
The last time Levy said she approached his staff was when Paul talked about sanctuary cities. “They were constantly trying to thread the needle, satisfying the tea party while still being libertarian.”
Levy, who was one of the 500 attendees at a gathering of the political network affiliated with the Koch brothers this weekend, said Paul was not part of the discussion at all when donors discussed 2016.
Whatever their problems with donors, the campaign was relatively lean (though it ran a high burn rate, particularly in its last quarter). Paul often traveled by himself or with just one or two other staffers. A potentially bigger problem in Iowa was that the campaign had trouble matching the depth of the organization achieved by Rand’s father Ron Paul in 2012.
“There wasn’t much organization, there wasn’t much leadership,” said the source close to the campaign. The campaign “missed out on reaching out to a lot of the Ron Paul electorate. There were a handful of old Ron Paul operatives who worked on our Iowa team and I think they agreed with me on that.”
There were also some concerns about Steve Grubbs, the campaign’s chief Iowa strategist.
“He wasn’t very hands on, he wasn’t very involved,” the source close to the campaign said. “It seemed like he was more concerned with t-shirts than getting out the vote or the caucuses.”
The campaign ran their online store through Grubbs’ company, Victory Enterprises. “Victory Enterprises managed the online store, as we do for other campaigns and schools. It was a successful way to raise money for the campaign,” Grubbs told BuzzFeed News. Grubbs declined to say how much money he had made from the store, saying, “I'm not authorized to discuss finances.”
“In 19 months, I missed three days on the road with Sen. Paul, otherwise, I was with him at every event,” Grubbs said.
Campaign manager Chip Englander and Stafford stressed in the call with reporters on Wednesday that Paul finished in the top five in Iowa, despite spending millions less compared to some other candidates.
“The investments we made in organization actually paid off,” Englander said.
In the end, Paul’s campaign could never quite decide what it wanted to be. Was Paul trying to win the nomination, or was he a message candidate?
“Certain camps within the campaign worked differently,” said the source close to the campaign. “Some camps wanted to win, and some in Ron Paul world were all about running a principled campaign based on ideas, not falling into the crowd, etc.”
Unlike his father, who ran unapologetically as a message candidate twice, Paul seemed to waver between the mainstream and his libertarian roots. In the end, the in-between route he chose did not work, especially during a year when foreign policy challenges like ISIS changed the mood of the electorate on national security.
“It just didn’t take off,” a former adviser said. “I think there was a chance he was trying to be too many things to too many people.”
“I think there were strategic mistakes that were made,” said Jonathan Bydlak, former fundraising director for Ron Paul. “When Rand was elected to the Senate in 2010, the biggest thing he had was the outsider perspective. Even though has now been in the Senate, he could have sold himself as an outsider."
But “he let Cruz very much play up that mantle,” Bydlak said.
Paul will now focus on his Senate re-election campaign — something his campaign shelled out $250,000 (and pledged another $200,000) as of December to the Kentucky Republican party in order to do at the same time as his presidential run, which had previously been an impossibility in that state.
In a way, the Senate was a better place for Paul and his issues than the presidential campaign was, or the presidency itself, with its demands and compromises, would be.
Former Paul adviser Trygve Olson compared Paul to political figures like Scoop Jackson, Jesse Helms, Ted Kennedy, and John McCain, all of whom unsuccessfully ran for president but wielded considerable influence in the Senate.
“Assuming Rand prevails in his Senate race he’ll be really well-positioned to do that if the Republicans maintain majority in the Senate,” Olson said. “He will really have the opportunity to shape the party and the country more than he would if he’d won this race.”