Campaigns/Elections

Ron Paul is Back

The Texas libertarian's House seat is safe as milk. Now what?

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Now that it's over the truth can be told: Ron Paul was never going to lose his House seat to Chris Peden. If a number of factors had broken against him it might have been possible. Say he had shut down his decades-old political operation in East Texas and focused all of his energy on the presidential rEVOLution. Say he'd contracted the violent somnabulism that felled Fred Thompson. (Does anyone know where he is these days?) A series of missteps could have cost Paul his re-election bid, but Friendswood, TX Councilman Chris Peden never stood that strong a chance.

Of course, some of the people who thought Peden would knock out Paul and carve his initials into a House of Representatives desk got that impression from…Ron Paul. On February 8, Paul announced that he was "scaling back" his presidential bid and warned that if he lost his House seat "all our opponents would react with glee, and pretend it was a rejection of our ideas." Four days later, Paul's friend and fellow anti-war Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest lost his Maryland seat. On February 18, Paul e-mailed his supporters with an "urgent message" about the challenge "the DC neocons" were mounting in Texas. The evidence was a blog post by GOP strategist Patrick Ruffini, a sometime admirer of Paul's online organization (and former Giuliani online guru), nudging mainstream Republicans to donate to Peden.

But as that email was going out, the Paul campaign knew what was contained in its first poll of the district. It showed Paul winning 60 percent of the vote and Peden completely uncompetitive. The money that was reeled in by the appeal—about a million dollars of it—wasn't needed to save Paul from defeat, but to smother Peden in his cradle.

"There are a lot of people in this district who would like to succeed Ron Paul," campaign manager Mark Elam said on Tuesday night. "The worst way to do that is to run against him. Chris Peden is finding that out."

Why did Paul win so easily when Wayne Gilchrest lost? It wasn't because of the work Paul did this year, but because of the work he's done since the 1970s—and especially since 1996—to build a political machine. Gilchrest, an idiosyncratic congressman who never liked fundraising or the grinding work of party building, made himself a target for ambitious Maryland Republicans for whom a House seat was their only chance at higher office. His liberal record on economic votes made him a target for the Club for Growth, a group that's generally happy with Paul. Paul's victory makes the survival of the other prominent anti-war Republican, North Carolina's Rep. Walter Jones, look more likely, even though Jones has shown some apostasy on fiscal issues. "I think there probably is room for anti-war Republicans out there," rationalized a Republican consultant who's watched the primary between Jones and challenger Joe McLaughlin. "I'm not convinced they can survive while representing heavily military districts."

So was the "Paul's in trouble" storyline a fiction created by his supporters? Of course not. The rumblings of a Paul challenge began last summer, after the candidate tussled with Rudy Giuliani over 9/11 at the second Republican debate. That week, former Paul staffer and longtime libertarian activist Eric Dondero announced a run against him. "I am the guy that got Ron Paul elected to Congress in 1996," Dondero wrote. "I can and will defeat him in 2008." Dondero made conservative pundits unschooled in East Texas politics wonder about Paul's vulnerability. The possibility of a Paul defeat was just too good to check.

The height of the "Paul in trouble" hype came the day after Paul's Defcon-1 letter, when Roger L. Simon of Pajamas Media ran an interview with Peden pegged to "internal polls" that showed Paul's support cratering. "Congressman Paul has fallen behind by over ten points in the polls (43-32) in the fight for the Republican nomination in the Texas 14th to challenger Chris Peden," Simon wrote, "according to internal polls from both campaigns, which Pajamas Media was told were quite similar."

The part about Peden's poll was true—sort of. According to Peden's political director Onzelo Markum, the campaign ran one automated poll in the district. It was not a blind test. People who picked up their phones were told that incumbent Ron Paul didn't support the war on terror, while councilman Chris Peden did. Only when given that informed choice did voters claim to support Peden. The part about "both campaigns" clutching spreadsheets of bad Paul data was pure rumor, based on the fact that Paul was buying ads and air time in his House district. Word spread that Paul must have seen slippage that matched up with Peden's poll—and that was good enough for the blogs.

After his win became clear on Tuesday, Paul pledged to "serve another term in Congress where I will continue my battle in behalf of taxpayers." Republican leaders would be fine with that, especially because it seems to rule out a third-party Paul bid for the presidency. On Wednesday morning the Paul campaign couldn't say whether Paul would stick in the race to rack up delegates. After the 40-point landslide comes the harder decisions. What, can Paul say, was the impact of his presidential run? What can he do now that he couldn't do as a congressman in 2007, or even 1997? Paul has saved his political career, but the same can't necessarily be said about his cause.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.