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Blumel continues: “Paul people were being laughed at and barred from things in ’08. The chair of the state party saw them as a barbarian threat.” That chair has since been indicted for embezzlement, and being a Paulite is no longer such a liability in Florida. Paul didn’t win the state in 2012—but where his campaign used to draw derisive laughter, Blumel says, “now it’s at least polite respect even if they’d never vote for Ron Paul.”
Pro-Paul operatives across the country report similar thaws. Chris Rye, who made a documentary called For Liberty about Paul’s 2008 campaign, is treasurer of his county party in Wisconsin, and the chair, vice chair, and secretary are all Paul fellow travelers as well. For some of these positions, Rye says, just showing up pretty much guarantees you can win local office. The Pat Robertson troops legendarily did this after the televangelist’s 1988 run, helping make the Christian right more influential within the GOP. As Rye sees it, liberty-minded would-be Republicans shouldn’t be concerned about obeisance to Paul per se as much as moving into the party and “trying to root out the entrenched guys that just wanna win that delegate seat for their own ego, who don’t really care [about policy] as long as a Republican wins. That mentality has infected everything.” Rye says the country needs a GOP of “troublemakers; the go-along-to-get-along hasn’t done the country any good. We need to replace those people with passionate activists from the grassroots.”
Rye says he has found that people who supported John McCain in 2008 are coming around, especially on foreign policy. President Barack Obama has made it OK for some Republicans to be for peace again. And as Paul people around the country have found, in an aging political party, merely being young and having the enthusiasm and energy to do the work that needs to be done to keep a party functional can go a long way toward overcoming initial ideological prejudice. Rye still remembers with some bitterness that a hemp-legalization plank introduced by a Paulista at a 2008 Wisconsin GOP convention was openly mocked from the stage by the chair (while Paulites put a Ron Paul T-shirt on a McCain cutout and took pictures).
Blumel puts it bluntly: “By definition, for every libertarian who joins the Republican Party, that makes the Republican Party more libertarian.” Rye agrees: A political party is made up of the people who show up, and he wants Paul people to show up for the Republican Party.
Paul’s 2012 campaign manager, John Tate, whose background was in the right-wing Leadership Institute and the Right-to-Work Committee, says Paul’s influence in the party has grown. “In ’07–’08,” Tate says, “we couldn’t get any local party people to invite Ron to speak, now we get literally hundreds of such invitations a week, and part of that is his message is more popular now. But it’s also that a lot of our people are now running those local party machines and they get to decide who comes in and talks to them. Local parties can also help control the flow of money to candidates. It varies state by state and district by district, but local parties can give and do a lot for candidates.”
Although Paulistas across the country are sanguine about their future in the party, longtime hard-right fundraiser Richard Viguerie, who began helping Paul back in the mid-1970s, is dubious that his followers will gain much traction. Local party activism, Viguerie says, lives and dies on the long-term involvement of community-oriented types who have positions in business organizations, church groups, or Lions Clubs that give them the connections fellow Republicans will respect. But then he remembers the old days and wonders: “When we were trying to get Reagan to beat the Ford/Rockefeller wing in ’76, we realized we needed a new leadership unfettered by old ties and old relationships. And the Ron Paul people are unfettered by old ties and old relationships. When they come in they are likely to make common cause with the Tea Party and make things uncomfortable for Republican leaders, the [House Speaker John] Boehners and [Sen. Mitch] McConnells, and we can’t go after them until the party is more occupied by people who are unfettered.”
The Father and the Son
The rise of Ron Paul and the rise of the Tea Party are no mere coincidence. In 2007, long before the national Tea Party movement had taken shape, Paul held a one-day fundraising event that pulled a record $6 million on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party—one of his famous “moneybombs.” Huge rallies were held in Boston itself, across Texas, in Santa Monica—even in Hawaii and France. Paul attended one in his home district, and tossed a barrel marked “Iraq War” into the Brazos River.
Ron’s son, Rand Paul, led the festivities in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, with 1,000 people braving a foul blizzard, rallying the chilly crowd with an account of how doubters had laughed them off as “the Ron Paul rabble.” “They are not laughing now,” he said.
Since that big Tea Party day in 2007, a mass political movement has arisen, one that is transpartisan and dedicated to restraining out-of-control government, opposing bailouts, and changing the game in Washington. Today, partly as a result of that uprising, Rand Paul is the head of the U.S. Senate’s Tea Party caucus and author of the book The Tea Party Goes to Washington (Center Street).
Rand Paul was not supposed to be a senator. When longtime Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning decided to retire at the end of his second term in 2011, the elder Kentucky solon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the GOP establishment thought the seat should go to Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Grayson was the anointed; Rand Paul was an obscure eye doctor with a weird dad. But between late summer and December 2009, polling for the 2010 Senate race in Kentucky whipsawed from Grayson beating Paul by 15 percentage points to Paul beating Grayson by 19.
How did he do it? Paul was able to slightly edge out Grayson in money raised by tapping into his father’s national audience and moneybombing. Grayson’s team tried libertarian baiting, with a public statement saying that “maybe Ron Paul’s skills as a career politician will help his son Rand explain to Kentuckians how closing Guantanamo and releasing the prisoners will make us safer and how a pro-choice marijuana advocate will best represent Kentucky Republicans as their Senate nominee.…The truth is that Ron and Rand Paul are not conservatives on national security and social issues and are completely out of touch with Kentucky.”
The tactic didn’t work. Rand Paul didn’t run on those more outré ends of the Paul message. He ran against the bailouts, stressing Tea Party disgust with two-party business as usual. He believes in the Austrian business cycle and ending the Federal Reserve but does not emphasize those issues. He would not have voted for the Iraq war, but he doesn’t complain about empire much, and he alarmed some of his dad’s anti-neoconservative fans when he met with Weekly Standard editor William Kristol.
But as Rand Paul’s campaign manager for the primary, David Adams, tells me, the campaign at the start was unquestionably built on the candidate’s connection to his father. The impact that Ron Paul had made nationally softened things up for his son in unquantifiable ways. The Tea Party was the vehicle that dragged him over the finish line; every event, Adams recalls, drew hundreds more people than were anticipated. 2010 was the right year for this kind of anti-establishment campaign to win. Sen. Paul now recalls that at the beginning, he couldn’t even get invited to local Republican Party meetings; by primary time he beat the establishment hero Grayson by 24 points. (He later beat the Democrat by 12.)
Rand Paul has a gift of emphasis that allows him to say things similar to his father on foreign policy but have it feel different. In a May 2010 reason story, he told Jim Antle, “I don’t agree with [my father] all of the time.” He said he was trying to build and represent a small-government coalition that might be bigger than just Ron Paul fans: “I am not trying to splinter off into a smaller and smaller group. I am trying to create a force than can win an election.”