WASHINGTON -- After a couple hours on the Senate floor, Sen. Rand Paul had already begun to pace back and forth in front of his desk while he continued to talk about his opposition to renewing the Patriot Act. There is little the Kentucky senator may be able to do to actually stop a bill from moving forward, and no telling how long he would be able to keep talking. But with each hour he spoke, he probably increased his standing as the most prominent and vocal opponent of the National Security Administration's surveillance programs and -- not coincidentally -- energized supporters of his presidential bid.
Paul is calling his speech a “filibuster,” but since the Senate is presently considering a bill to expedite trade agreements and not one dealing with the NSA, it isn’t actually a filibuster of the Patriot Act renewal. And unless he's able to speak through the night and through Thursday morning, he's unlikely even to delay the trade vote. In fact, the Senate could just remain in session over the weekend to continue voting. (You can watch the livestream of his speech here.)
The Senate seems poised to hold a vote on the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would renew most of the Patriot Act but put an end to the bulk collection of phone and other digital data. Paul has argued that the Freedom Act doesn’t go far enough to stop bulk collections or other surveillance that takes place without a search warrant. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced earlier this week he would allow a Senate vote on the House-passed version of the Freedom Act. If that bill can't pass, it's expected the Senate would then move to renew the entire program. The Patriot Act expires at the end of the month.
But while Paul stands little chance of sinking the Patriot Act entirely, he could make a big difference among the voters he is courting for his presidential campaign.
"After several weeks of seemingly losing his mojo, Rand has found a topic that's right in his sweet spot,” said Republican strategist Joe Brettell. “Not only will this filibuster play well with his loosely affiliated libertarian and nontraditional base, it allows him to play up his ‘outside-of-D.C. creds’ -- something verbal fisticuffs with the media fails to accomplish."
Paul has taken the most hardline position against the use of surveillance by the NSA. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has supported ending bulk collection of phone data by the NSA, but he previously voted for renewal of the Patriot Act.
It’s an issue that plays well not only with libertarians but also with young voters. A poll by the American Civil Liberties Union, also a vocal opponent of the NSA program, found that modifying the Patriot Act was most popular in the 18-39 age group. Of those surveyed in a poll released this week, 65 percent of respondents in the younger age bracket support modifying the law, compared to 60 percent of the general population and 59 percent of those over 45 years old.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the conservative group Tea Party Patriots, said the speech would be a success if it draws attention to the growing opposition to the bulk collection of data by government. "Ending the unwarranted mass collection of data by the government is an issue that unites Americans, as evidenced by our partnership with the ACLU and the NAACP," she said.
Paul promoted his faux filibuster on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms that are a key feature of his campaign. Those venues often connect better with younger voters. He opened a digital campaign office in Austin, Texas, to focus chiefly on his online presence.
RETWEET if you are standing with me against the so-called "PATRIOT Act!" https://t.co/yJi1cJwSmK
— Dr. Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 20, 2015
Exclusive video that answers the question: why a filibuster? https://t.co/4HxwQn0IEw
— Dr. Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 20, 2015
And as Paul delivered a speech on the floor, his social media accounts were abuzz with activity. Videos with the headline “Exclusive” featuring Paul before the speech were posted to his Twitter account. His Facebook page filled with appeals to join him in his effort. His campaign sent out a fundraising appeal on email, asking supporters to “Stand With Rand” as he fought the NSA surveillance.
You might recognize these liberty lovers who just sent in their #standwithrand picture! Join them and send in yours.
— Dr. Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 20 2015