As the 2012 race for the Republican Party presidential nomination winds down, the last runner-up standing is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. This time around, Paul has managed to snag about 10 percent of the overall primary vote (as of late April), up from 4 percent total in his 2008 campaign. He is sure to finish no lower than fourth in the delegate count and has hopes of climbing higher as the primary season stretches out through June 26.
By holding on, and by competing most heavily in states with convoluted caucusing procedures that allow his enthusiastic supporters to punch above their voting weight, Paul guaranteed that his voice—arguing, as always, for shrinking the scope of the U.S. government at home and abroad—will be heard at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August. Meanwhile, the candidate’s ability to draw a crowd remain undiminished, with thousands routinely turning out for campus visits throughout the spring.
That said, 2012 marks the end of Ron Paul’s career as a politician. He is not running to retain the Texas House seat he has held since 1997, and there is no realistic chance that he will ponder another White House run in 2016 at the ripe old age of 81. The future of Paul’s ideas in the GOP will depend not on him but on the voters, activists, and candidates who follow in his footsteps.
In 2008 and 2010, dozens of self-styled “Ron Paul Republicans” sought office under the Republican banner. The biggest win was in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, around Grand Rapids, where a young lawyer named Justin Amash snagged a seat. Amash is hardcore, a guy who sometimes votes no even when Dr. No votes yes and explains his every action to constituents on Facebook. A true child of the revolution, Amash became a fan of F.A. Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat while studying economics at the University of Michigan. Disgusted with the sameness of the Republicans and the Democrats, he sought and won a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives in 2008 and immediately decided to try for federal office.
But first Amash took a pilgrimage to Lake Jackson, Texas, to seek Ron Paul’s endorsement. Paul, says Amash, “wanted to know I thought I could win it without him. I think he doesn’t like it when people come and ask for his help who think he is going to carry them to victory just because they are big fans of his and they run as Ron Paul Republicans.” Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton says Paul likes to know any candidate seeking his endorsement could raise at least $50,000 on his own. When self-described Paul Republicans ask for help and support, Amash reports, Paul “tells them, ‘Whatever percentage of the primary vote I got in your district, that’s how much I can help you.’ ” That’s usually not much; in Michigan, for example, Paul’s pull in 2008 was just 6 percent of primary voters statewide and only 3 percent within Amash’s district. Amash did not win on Ron Paul’s coattails; he found an independent body of voters interested in his libertarian ideas.
The Michigan congressman was redistricted this year, so he will be facing a new constituency in 2012, but he is confident he can keep his seat. While money doesn’t always win elections, as of mid-April Amash had spent more than 10 times what his two leading Democratic opponents have spent combined, some of the funds coming from Paul’s LibertyPAC. Amash doesn’t want to speculate about his possible future role as the national political leader of the liberty movement until Ron Paul is no longer in office or running for it, but he’s clearly on the shortlist.
There has been a flowering of hopeful Paulites on the state and local level as well. A New Hampshire Paul campaign volunteer and Air Force veteran named Jim Forsythe became a state senator in 2010. Forsythe and more than a handful of other self-conscious Paul devotees in the New Hampshire legislature, including Republican state Reps. Jenn Coffey, Seth Cohn, and Mark Warden, have successfully pushed legislation to fully legalize knives, loosen homeschooling regulations, and cut overall spending. Forsythe says candidates who are looking to follow in Paul’s footsteps must tailor their pitches to local needs and concerns. “You can’t just win state office by saying you are for liberty,” he says.
For every Amash and Forsythe, there are a dozen failures. B.J. Lawson, a medical software entrepreneur who was endorsed by Paul, was the GOP candidate for a North Carolina House seat in 2008 and 2010, losing both times. John Dennis of San Francisco, an ergonomic furniture entrepreneur who campaigned for Paul and was endorsed by him, ran unsuccessfully against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2010 on the Republican ticket, and is trying again this year. Paul fan and investment-world bad boy Peter Schiff, who rose to national prominence after predicting the housing bubble collapse based on the same Austrian-economics perspective espoused by Paul, made a high-profile run for a 2010 Republican Senate nomination in Connecticut. Schiff managed to pull more than 20 percent in a three-way race but lost the GOP nomination to wrestling mogul Linda McMahon. In Maryland, four self-identified “Ron Paul Republicans,” Peter James, Richard Matthews, Thomas Harris, and Michael Hargadon, won GOP House primaries in 2008, but all four lost to their Democratic opponents in the general election.
A few candidates supported by Paul’s LibertyPAC have won state House seats in Iowa, including Kim Pearson, a housewife mostly working the right-populist end of the Paul spectrum. After taking office, Pearson was appalled at the lackluster conservatism of her fellow state House Republicans on issues such as gun rights. In September 2011, she announced her intention to recruit primary challengers to unseat wishy-washy members of her own party. Four months later, however, Pearson announced that she herself would not seek re-election, highlighting the fragility of a political movement with too few bodies in the field.
As Paul has focused on his own run this election cycle, money dispersals from LibertyPAC, which is dedicated to helping Paul-like politicians, have lagged. As of March, the PAC had given to only four federal office seekers, with the largest amount, $20,000, to Paul himself. (Its ability to raise money, even with the Paul campaign as competition, has improved since 2008, however, with nearly $1.3 million raised this cycle vs. only $304,000 then.)
Paul revolutionaries clearly are willing and able to field candidates but so far have not had much success at winning elections. In April Politico counted a likely “two dozen active Paul backers who are running for House or Senate seats and another 200 or so who are seeking local offices.” A Paulite website devoted to “Liberty Candidates” has identified more than 50 Paul fellow travelers running for local, state, and federal offices. Paul fans in Southern California are pursuing a strategy of packing Los Angeles County’s GOP Central Committee with likeminded folk, while the Paul campaign is encouraging supporters to pack as many delegate and local and district-level Republican Party positions as it can. The process will be slow, but undoubtedly the Republican Party will be more libertarian down the line because of what Ron Paul did in 2008 and 2012.
Revolutionaries and Republicans
The Ron Paul Revolution’s relationship with the Republican Party is fractious. From local meetings to the national convention in 2008, many activists nurture tales of disrespect or even abuse from GOP regulars, such as cops called in to break up meetings overwhelmed by Paulites in Missouri, parliamentary rule abuses aimed at limiting Paulite chances in Louisiana, and a generally unwelcoming vibe everywhere from Texas to Oregon.
“In 2008,” observes Florida Republican activist and Paul fan Phil Blumel, “when the Ron Paul folks first showed up, they didn’t know how to deal with people professionally, and in the last few years that’s gotten better. Some of that is just them growing up. In 2008 the Ron Paul people were all really young. Now in Florida the Paul contingent is respected in a way it was not in 2008, and they dominate in some counties.”
The people who fill these party positions, although the average voter will never know who they are, “have a lot of influence on who wins primaries,” Blumel says, “because the movers and shakers of the party are listened to by lots of the rank and file. They will follow their votes. So when you have Ron Paul presented as a respected alternative by normal people like them working in their party like them, it makes it more possible for other Republicans to publicly support him.”
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.”
An NBC reporter once asked Ron Paul at an Iowa speech if his son’s political success had taught him anything. Paul answered that he will just keep doing what he has always done: tell people the truth. They will respond. Ron Paul does not think he has anything to learn about politics.
Once in office, Rand Paul delighted right-wingers and constitutionalists who were dreaming of a fresh face to make their case for them, balls to the wall, in the media. In his very first speech as senator, he argued that compromise is not always the highest value. He told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on August 1, 2011, that it’s more dangerous to the country’s faith and credit to keep adding more debt than it is to face up to our troubles with the “temporary inconvenience” of hitting the debt ceiling.
Rand Paul holds Senate hearings to highlight the “jackbooted thug” side of regulatory enforcement, how people’s lives are ruined because dampness on their property made it a “wetland,” because they sold rabbits without permission, or because they used a certain type of wood in their guitar factory. Last year he tried to get the Senate to vote on candidate Obama’s declaration that the president does not have the power to unilaterally declare war, which would taken away President Obama’s power to keep illegally fighting a unilateral war in Libya. He was the only senator to hold up renewal of the PATRIOT Act, forcing a vote on an amendment to protect the privacy of gun records.
So far Rand Paul has found that the power of one senator to effect change is small. But with the help of comrades like Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, he got a vote on his proposal to balance the budget within five years (it was crushed, 90 to 7) and is working to make sure there are public debates on controversial legislation such as the PATRIOT Act and No Child Left Behind.
Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano, who keeps his eye on positive developments in Congress, says he knows of nearly 15 congressmen whose voting records mark them as faithful libertarians on issues such as the PATRIOT Act, the debt ceiling, and the war on Libya. And nearly double that number seem to lean libertarian. “I don’t know if any of them would be there,” Napolitano says, “if not for [Ron Paul’s] personal, persistent, and continual education of the public and other members of Congress.”
But placing a few friends of liberty here and there—in local, state, and federal office—is not enough by itself to effect real change. As Paul wrote in the March 2010 issue of Young American Revolution, a publication of Young Americans for Liberty, “No matter how many pro-freedom politicians we elect to office, the only way to guarantee constitutional government is through an educated and activist public devoted to the ideals of liberty.”
Brian Doherty is a senior editor at reason. This essay was adapted from his new book Ron Paul's Revolution. Copyright © 2012 by Brian Doherty. Reprinted by arrangement with Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.