The Accidental Congressman

The surprising success and strict constitutionalism of Georgia Rep. Paul Broun


Pundits, academics, and Republican activists in Georgia want to make this perfectly clear: Paul Broun is an accidental congressman.

"I was flabbergasted when he won the election," admits Jim Box, one of many eminences in the Georgia Republican Party who declined to endorse the 61-year-old house call doctor before his upset victory in a special election last July. Box runs the GOP in Clarke County, which surrounds Athens and includes the University of Georgia; it's the area that gave Broun his winning majority.

"All the long-term historical indicators," says Merle Black, "indicate that Broun should have lost." Black, an Emory University political scientist with a peerless knowledge of Southern politics, bets that Broun will serve one term and lose the next Republican primary. Box agrees.

It's easy to see why they're skeptical. Broun, a self-described "strict constitutionalist," believes that the income tax should be abolished, that civil liberties degraded since 9/11 should be restored, and that fetuses deserve American citizenship. He has been married four times; opponents grumble that he performs house calls because hospitals won't hire him. This isn't the usual background of somebody who gets elected in Georgia.

So how did Broun get to Congress? After Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) died of cancer last February, 10 candidates—six Republicans, three Democrats, and one Libertarian—fought for his seat. The entire Republican establishment, from Norwood's widow to local party leaders, endorsed a venerable state senator named Jim Whitehead. To them, Broun was a meandering fringe candidate who had squandered his good name (his father was a state senator from Athens) in three previous defeats: a 1990 House race, a 1992 House primary, and a 1996 Senate primary. In the last contest, he finished fourth, with only 3 percent of the vote.

Whitehead ran a front-runner's campaign, skipping debates and promising to continue Norwood's moderate conservative legacy. Broun ran the same campaign he always has, pledging to support bills only if they fit a quirky four-part test: They have to be moral (according to the Bible), constitutional (according to the version he keeps in his suit pocket), necessary (according to logic), and affordable (according to a balanced federal budget). Even after tapping into $200,000 of his own cash, Broun raised just half as much money as Whitehead did and finished a distant second in the first round of voting, 43.5 percent to 20.7 percent. Since no one received a majority, there was a runoff, but nearly everyone expected Whitehead's win.

But then Whitehead got smug. As the runoff approached, he didn't run any TV ads or do any polling. He joked about bombing everything at the University of Georgia except for the football team. He accused Democrats of registering "known Al Qaeda terrorists" to vote. It was a slow-motion collapse. Broun ended up muscling past Whitehead by less than 400 votes out of about 47,000 cast.

"I hope my colleagues will go to school on what my election meant," Broun says. "Everybody thought it was a slam dunk, my opponent winding up here. But he's not here."

There are two reasons why Broun's career is worth examining closely. The first is Broun himself. He compares himself happily to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the anti-war libertarian presidential candidate: Both men are physicians who carry pocket Constitutions and often find themselves on the losing side of congressional votes. (Broun likes Paul, but he doesn't share Paul's views on Iraq and won't make a presidential endorsement.) The day he was sworn in, Broun joined just 13 other Republicans (and 150 Democrats) in supporting a bill to call off raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration on medical marijuana distributors. He was one of only four congressmen to oppose the Drug Endangered Children Act, which allocated $20 million to take care of children living among drugs and drug dealers, and one of three to vote against establishing a new registry to keep track of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ("Lou Gehrig's disease").

Asked about both votes, Broun hauls out his Constitution and flips it open to Article I, Section 8. "We don't have authority to create things like that," he says. "This lists the functions of the federal government, and it's about a page and a half long. I'd say most of the things this Congress does, we don't actually have the authority to do."

Broun worries that interpretation of the Constitution has been off for a very long time. "Maybe it was when they decided Marbury v. Madison when the courts hijacked the Constitution," he says. "I think you can go back to John Adams with the Alien and Sedition Acts that passed when he was president. The thing is, human nature is such that people want to garner more power. What fuels the great growth of government—and I'm talking about more and more centralization from local governments to state governments, from state governments to the federal government—is that basic human nature."

Broun doesn't share his party's thinking on what the U.S. should be doing during a "war on terror." Asked if he agrees with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that the biggest threat facing the country is Islamic terrorism, he shakes his head. "No," he says, "our biggest threat is a lack of understanding of what the Constitution says and what the Founding Fathers meant for it to say. We've left that behind."

Back in Georgia, Broun's own party is plotting to replace him, beginning with the July 2008 primary for his seat. State Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) entered the race soon after the runoff and has out-fundraised Broun by about 9 to 1. Local pols expect Fleming to win.

"I wouldn't be running if I thought there was sufficient leadership being exhibited by our congressman," Fleming says. "I'm offering voters a choice: someone who's sharp, well-spoken, and can articulate conservative ideas and then walk the walk in Congress." The implication is that Broun is none of those things, and that his lonely votes against popular programs are a waste of a perfectly good Republican seat.

But opinion on the Hill doesn't jibe with opinion among Georgia Republicans. After Broun's victory, conservative columnist Robert Novak reported that incumbent Republican House members facing primary challenges were "terrified." Last fall some Hill staffers and Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) told me to pay attention to Broun, saying he was turning heads at party conference meetings with his strict constructionist arguments.

And that leads us to the second reason Broun's career deserves our attention. His victory kicked off a season of angry voting.

Consider the case of Greg Ballard, a Republican ex-Marine who in November defeated Indianapolis' Democratic mayor, Bart Peterson, with one-tenth his money. Everyone expected Peterson to win, despite the city's high crime rate and property taxes. But he lost to the underfunded Republican, and GOPers took the city council majority from safe-seeming Democrats.

Then there was the unexpectedly competitive congressional campaign of Massachusetts Republican Jim Ogonowski, another first-time candidate. The farmer and retired Air Force officer came within six percentage points of winning an open House seat in a district that had voted for John Kerry and Al Gore by better than 14 points. The candidate's ads were crayon crude: "The problem: Congress is broken. The solution: Jim Ogonowski." But voters were angry, and for 46 percent of them a Republican who had opposed the Iraq War (but said we now had to win it) became the vessel of their anger. For Broun, it was yet more evidence that his victory was part of a wave of anti-Washington, anti-establishment voter outrage.

Even if Broun is wrong and his victory was a fluke, his beliefs resonate in a year when Ron Paul, initially dismissed as a fringe candidate, raised more money and held bigger, more enthusiastic rallies than his party's less libertarian front-runners. Barry Fleming may start this campaign as the favorite, but there is substantial, enduring support for a congressman who shares the voters' contempt for Congress. Party leaders won't be able to wish that sentiment away.

David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.