He cited the familiar litany of problems: demographic change, poor candidates, ideological rigidity, deplorable approval ratings, and a rift between social and economic conservatives.

“It’s leading to some type of crash and reassessment and change,” said Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and remains an influential lobbyist and operative. “It can’t continue on this path.”

Reed sketched a hypothetical scenario under which Paul runs for the Republican nomination in 2016, loses after solid showings in Iowa and other states run by supporters of his father (former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul), bolts the GOP, and mounts a third-party bid that undercuts the Republican nominee.

Paul, a tea-party favorite who was elected to the Senate in 2010, told USA Today on Wednesday that he was interested in running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. “I do want to be part of the national debate,” he said.

What are the odds of Paul or another GOP defector splitting the party? Reed asked me to repeat the question—and then grimaced. “There’s a real chance,” he replied.