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Except he hadn’t. The next day political director Jesse Benton scrambled to reframe the announcement, explaining that while the campaign was abandoning efforts to rack up primary votes in the big, expensive states, the effort to win delegates at state conventions would continue. Benton stressed the campaign’s desire to maintain a good relationship with the GOP, explaining that he wanted “respect and decorum” rather than more convention scrums.
The announcement hit Paul’s volunteer army hard. For some, it was evidence that the professional higher-ups surrounding the candidate—especially Benton, the grassroots’ bête noire—had lost intentionally. Theories ranged from the mundane (perhaps Paul was angling for a speaking slot at the convention) to the practical (the campaign was smoothing the path for the blander, more mainstream Rand Paul in 2016) to the paranoid (operatives were trying to kneecap the liberty movement entirely). This was a conspiracy theory I heard not only from anonymous firebrands at websites such as Ron Paul Forums, but from Oklahoma alternate delegate Porter Davis at the RNC. “For such a bunch of smart guys, they must have thrown the game to squander so many resources for such a pitiful result,” Davis said.
Activists noted that the announcement came directly after a weekend of particularly chaotic GOP state conventions. Paul fans had clashed with Romney folk in Arizona, and in Oklahoma, the Paulites split to run their own rump convention.
In an October 2012 interview, Paul explained to me that while he knew it would discourage many of his grassroots fans, he just felt obliged to be honest with supporters about his chances. “It was my preference to do it…because I felt like if I didn’t do it, it was more deception. You have your very hard workers who are realistic and know what to expect,” he said. “And others have the expectation that tomorrow everyone in the world will know I’m going to be president of the United States. I thought it was time to be more honest and upfront rather than leading people astray.”
Trouble in Tampa
The decision to de-emphasize campaigning without suspending the campaign would shape the conflict between higher-ups and the volunteers through the national convention in Tampa. Paul and his professionals understood by mid-May that he could not win, but a large percentage of Paul delegates believed up until the convention was in full swing that they could somehow get the assembly en masse to defect from Romney to Paul, and at any rate should be as big a nuisance as possible to a rotten GOP establishment. The political professionals wanted to normalize, build donor lists, infiltrate the Republican Party rather than fight it, even if that required compromise and backroom deals. They were looking to formally train activists and cultivate other, less purely libertarian political candidates. The Paul campaign may have been the most energized in the Republican field by far, but by its endgame, those running it opted to rein in that energy.
Grassroots activists (and some slightly disgruntled official campaign workers) brought a series of complaints about how the campaign was run. The ground operations relied too much on calls, not enough on door-to-door or advertising. The campaign rewarded coziness with superiors more than results. Some high-level operatives were not fully dedicated to Paul’s libertarian message. The campaign downplayed Paul’s foreign policy rather than trying hard to sell it to a doubtful GOP base. They didn’t fight hard enough in certain supposedly winnable states, such as Virginia, where Paul and Romney were the only ones on the ballot, or Texas, his home state. For his part, campaign manager John Tate notes that if he’d had endless millions, then he could have tried every strategy that the Monday morning quarterbacks are sure would have worked. As it is, Tate says, he’s proud of the movement-building the campaign produced.
Paul headed into the RNC with many more delegates than the media guessed, because his caucus strategy indeed helped him perform well above what the beauty contest votes would have predicted. The New York Times website was still claiming Paul had only one delegate from Iowa even after the whole state convention process was over. Romney partisans, meanwhile, were determined to trim Paul’s national numbers down to a headline-avoiding level, and to keep the number of state delegations he controlled below the five that would allow him to be officially nominated from the floor, thereby earning speaking time. The chaos and disruption at various state GOP conventions in the months before led to a series of credential challenges over which delegates would be officially recognized at the RNC.
The Paul campaign got involved in four of the delegation challenges, going after what they considered illegitimate strikings of duly elected delegates or alternates in Massachusetts, Oregon, and Louisiana, and defending the Paul-controlled Maine delegation from an establishment challenge. Dave Warrington, the campaign’s legal point man on the challenges, told an audience at a Campaign for Liberty–sponsored Liberty Political Action Conference in September that the GOP’s disregard for its own rules was so extreme that “I had members of the RNC who were by no means Paul supporters come up to me and say ‘this stinks, it turns my stomach, I can’t be involved in this.’ ”
The Paul people, who had spent so much time and energy mastering arcane parliamentary rules, were consistently stymied by the establishment that wrote them. The Oregon challenge lost entirely; in both Louisiana and Massachusetts the campaign made deals that got some but not all of its delegates reinstated. Bay State delegates had been ordered to sign loyalty oaths swearing they’d vote for Romney. Some refused, and even some who reluctantly signed were still bounced on suspicion of loyalty to Paul.
Still other Paulite challenges went rogue, without backing from the campaign. In Oklahoma, Paul state campaign director Al Gerhart was driven out of the state by a concerted grassroots revolt. As a result, Paul activists were on their own trying to get the results of their rump convention recognized by the RNC, and they failed. In California, a Paul-supporting lawyer named Richard Gilbert filed a confusing federal lawsuit in June accusing the GOP of a series of shenanigans and fraud aimed at Paul delegates. The suit also tried to establish that it was illegal for the RNC to “bind” any delegate to any candidate, which if true would theoretically create the possibility for a brokered convention in which Paul could win; the suit got tossed out in August by a U.S. District Court in California.
Maine became the final battleground, and the Paul forces’ most dramatic loss. Ultimately the RNC Committee on Contests divided the delegation in half days before the convention began: 10 for Paul and 10 for Romney. Maine Gov. Paul LePage was so angered by the violation of state process that he skipped the convention, even though he was not a Paul man himself. Paul’s Maine delegates walked off the floor dramatically when an attempt to get the body of the convention to vote on their reinstatement was ignored by the chair.
The Republican leadership further infuriated Paulites, Tea Party activists, and other grassroots organizers with a series of last-minute rules changes that will give future candidates the power to boot delegates they don’t like if they won the state, and will give the RNC board the power to unilaterally change rules between conventions.
Chris Stearns worked for the Paul campaign in Virginia and was a delegate from that state, where Paulites have not quite taken over but have formed an influential coalition with activists of a roughly Tea Party ilk and taken dozens of positions on the state GOP’s Central Committee. Stearns was on the platform committee, where Paul people did see some victories, most notably a call for a Federal Reserve audit, a gold commission, a ban on domestic drones in law enforcement, and more Internet freedom. (The committee failed, he grouses, to include an attack on the National Defense Authorization Act or a defense of raw milk.)
Despite the small platform successes, the rules changes and rough handling by establishmentarians (including delegates being threatened with ejection for waving Paul signs on the floor) left many of the 185 Paul delegates at the RNC alienated and disheartened. Some decided then and there to leave the GOP—Virginia delegate Stearns recalls that some fellow delegates said “screw it, [the GOP] is a corrupt organization and there’s nothing we can do about it.” But most, says campaign manager John Tate, “came out more committed than ever to going back and throwing the bums out.” As Stearns says, “If we leave ’cause they want us to leave, we are falling into their trap. Most of us decided, let’s just continue to do what we’ve been doing. I think in the long term, [the party establishment] is going to feel a dose of blowback.”