In ongoing fight with Fauci, Rand Paul sees only a political upside

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When Rand Paul again locked horns with Dr. Anthony Fauci at a Senate committee hearing this week, the instant reactions were as standard as the menu at The Cheesecake Factory.

The left cheered that Fauci had shut down Paul, repeatedly sharing the clip of President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser telling Kentucky’s junior senator he didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Rand, you lost already,” tweeted Democratic Senate candidate Charles Booker, adding music to video of Fauci’s retort for dramatic effect.

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Just as fervently, the right rallied to Paul and heaped praise on him as a warrior who had the guts to call out the lies of such a popular figure.

For political purposes, the feud looks advantageous for Paul, who is up for re-election next year in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for U.S. Senate since 1992.

Paul’s office says when the senator is traveling the Commonwealth, on the phones or even during a recent tele-townhall, the most common topics he’s asked about are Fauci-related.

And even Democrats understand the longtime director of the U.S National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases -- who became famous during the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year -- has since morphed into a lightning rod on the right.

Because of their exhaustion with the pandemic, outrage about the lockdowns and distrust of his masking guidance, conservatives have turned Fauci into a villainous figure who undermined former President Donald Trump. And Paul, a physician himself, is responding to what his base wants while also leveraging his own medical background as an asset during a high-wattage hearing.

“Rand Paul’s baseless attacks against Fauci will help him outside the city limits of Louisville and the high-income zip codes of Lexington, the same places that were so adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage that they voted in 2015 for Matt Bevin for governor,” said Craig Varoga, a Democratic consultant who has worked on races in the state.

Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci pushes back on statements by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as he testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Cases of COVID-19 have tripled over the past three weeks, and hospitalizations and deaths are rising among unvaccinated people. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)
Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci pushes back on statements by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as he testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Cases of COVID-19 have tripled over the past three weeks, and hospitalizations and deaths are rising among unvaccinated people. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)

Tuesday’s fiery exchange came when Paul asked Fauci if he wanted to retract a statement he made in May, claiming the National Institutes of Health never funded gain-of-function research in Wuhan, China. Gain-of-function research is when scientists purposefully mutate, adapt or add a new property to an organism to make it more dangerous. They do so to test theories and potentially identify treatments for diseases.

Fauci has repeatedly denied the NIH funded any such research there; Paul claims he’s lying.

The point of the argument goes to the still unsettled question of whether the coronavirus was engineered -- and then escaped from -- a Chinese laboratory rather than having been transferred between animals and humans.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questions top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing onon COVID-19, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Cases of COVID-19 have tripled over the past three weeks, and hospitalizations and deaths are rising among unvaccinated people. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questions top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing onon COVID-19, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Cases of COVID-19 have tripled over the past three weeks, and hospitalizations and deaths are rising among unvaccinated people. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)

Paul presented a quote from Chinese virologist Dr. Shi Zhengli, saying their work was funded by NIH. And Josh Rogin, a Washington Post columnist who just released a book on China, provided a powerful boost to Paul’s defense, saying “Paul was right and Fauci was wrong.”

“The NIH was funding gain of function research in Wuhan but NIH pretended it didn’t meet their ‘gain of function’ definition to avoid their own oversight mechanism. Sorry not sorry if that doesn’t fit your favorite narrative,” Rogin tweeted.

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Whether or not Paul is proven categorically right on gain of function, the Booker campaign sees this as just part of a larger narrative that could come back to bite Paul if the resurgence of the coronavirus continues to get worse.

“His whole schtick on this has been a base play, trying to cater to those who don’t think they should take the virus seriously. The Fauci thing is part of that,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a Booker adviser. “It’s about Rand’s posture on the virus more generally. When the virus hits you or your family or someone you know, it’s not political anymore.”

Paul’s fight with Fauci is now months in the making but he seems to be relishing it, rather than tamping down.

After the dust settled in the Dirksen Senate Building, Paul marched his way over to Fox News cameras, where he appeared with host Brian Kilmeade and then a couple hours later with Sean Hannity to up the ante.

Paul said he would be asking the Department of Justice for a criminal referral on Fauci for lying to Congress, something he even acknowledged likely won’t be treated seriously by Attorney General Merrick Garland. Still, he was viral again late Tuesday evening and into Wednesday.

Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican business trial lawyer in San Francisco helpfully provided a donation link to Paul’s campaign, calling him a “treasure who needs your support.” Paul’s chief strategist, Doug Stafford, amplified her call with a retweet.

On Wednesday, Paul continued his media tour with another stop on Fox News with Martha MacCallum in the afternoon.

He challenged the network -- or any media outlet -- to convene a panel of impartial scientists to evaluate whether the research being conducted in Wuhan and funded by the NIH, was gain of function.

“Right now Fauci’s getting away with this. Because no one’s questioning him. He only goes on left wing networks, they give him easy questions like, ‘Ha, ha, ha, isn’t Rand Paul so out there?,’” Paul complained on Fox.

Paul might have a re-election fight next year, but his current campaign remains against America’s most beloved doctor.

“You have to realize that Dr. Fauci is not disinterested. If this virus came from the lab and it becomes clear that he was funding dangerous research, moral culpability, responsibility attaches to him, and he does not want that, so he’s shirking that. But in so doing, he’s not being honest with the American people or Congress,” Paul said.

Dr. Fauci to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul: ‘You do not know what you are talking about.’

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