Amit Singh is 33 years old. If you were tending a bar when he walked in, you'd probably card him. Before his April speech to a slowly filling restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, he ambles around the room, grabbing shoulders, shaking hands, smiling sheepishly. Friends who have shown up to support the unassuming defense industry engineer sit nearby, bemused.
"When he first showed me his website," says Orrin McNamara, one of Singh's neighbors, "I said: 'Is this a joke? Amit for Congress?' Seriously, I thought it might have been a joke." He ponders for a moment. "I don't know what the joke would have been."
A bit after 7 p.m., Singh walks to the podium and sounds like what he is: a Republican congressional candidate. He talks about a "new vision for a brighter future." Boilerplate, candidate-from-a-kit stuff. Singh smiles and darts his eyes down when he draws applause and laughs nervously when he takes a swipe at his Democratic incumbent. He doesn't sound comfortable—until the speech shifts.
"We've seen how the politics of fear chip away at freedom at home," he declares, sounding suddenly sure of himself. "Where are the defenders of freedom today? Where are our Thomas Jeffersons? Where are our Barry Goldwaters? There are a few defenders of freedom, but they are outnumbered, and they need our help."
Singh has one particular defender of freedom in mind: Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). It was Paul's libertarian-minded presidential campaign that got Singh into politics, first as a donor, then as a Virginia volunteer, and now as a candidate for Congress. A month after watching Paul score 4.5 percent of the vote in the Virginia primary, Singh threw his hat into the ring for the 8th District congressional seat.
By the end of the 2008 elections, as many as 40 self-proclaimed Ron Paul Republicans will have run for national office. The reception they are getting from their state parties ranges from warm embraces to Terminator-like efforts to destroy them. After a year of supporting a presidential candidate the party's gatekeepers treated like a radioactive performance artist, the Paulites are used to ridicule. They want to carve out a permanent place in Republican politics, regardless of whether the party wants them to be there.
The Ron Paul Republicans come in two breeds. The first and largest category—about half the candidates collected on the aggregating site PaulCongress.com—are utter long-shots. They live either in districts where Democrats could hold fundraisers for the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and still win by landslides or those held comfortably by old-line Republican incumbents. David Wasserman, the House race editor for the Cook Political Report, says these candidates shouldn't get their hopes up. "You can argue that it says something about the state of our democracy, the nature of the way districts are drawn, or the nature of incumbency," Wasserman says. "We shut out a lot of viable people in these safe seats."
Maryland's Peter James lives in one of those districts of doom, a snaky, overwhelmingly Democratic gerrymander in the black suburbs of Washington, D.C. In the run-up to the February 12 primary elections there, James did the grunt work of organizing the Montgomery County Ron Paul Meetup group while hitting the pavement to win the Republican nomination for Congress. He spent $6,000 and all the free time a computer consultant can wrangle to win a primary against two other candidates—one of them another Ron Paul Republican.
"We had some Libertarian Party activists, some conservative Republicans, and about a third of the people we had were liberal Democrats who didn't like their party's candidates," James says. "I'd go up to someone and tell them I was running for Congress. They'd ask the party. I'd say, 'Republican.' They'd say, 'I can't vote for you.' Then I'd say, 'I'm a Ron Paul Republican.' And they'd say, 'Oh! Well, I like him.'?"
Maryland is ground zero for Ron Paul Republican candidates. Six of the state's eight congressional districts are held by Democrats; four of the six Republicans running to challenge them were volunteers for Ron Paul. The Maryland Republican Party, which was kicked to the curb in the 2006 midterms, is happy to have them. "We welcome everyone to the Republican Party," says state party Executive Director John Flynn. "We're in the minority! Two years ago we didn't even field candidates for two of these races, so the Ron Paul Republicans are really adding something."
Like the man who inspired them, Paul's flock deviates far from the Bush-era GOP's platform and organizing tactics. When I ask Peter James what he has done to coordinate with the other three Maryland Ron Paul Republicans, he says they've talked about launching a viral video or a newspaper. One of James' "main issues" is "providing an alternative currency," not exactly a mainline Republican talking point. Flynn doesn't mind; he shrugs that it's "one of Peter's issues."
Other state parties are less welcoming. John Wallace is a 64-year-old New York real estate broker who started working for Paul, in part, because "he was the only one talking about the North American Union," an alleged plot to merge the U.S. with Canada and Mexico. Wallace jumped into a primary for a suburban seat that Republicans lost in 2006; the party was backing the millionaire former party chairman Sandy Treadwell to try to seize it back. "I'll go to one of these county meetings," Wallace says, "and people will say to me: 'My God! You're right on the money. That was the greatest thing I've ever seen.' Then they'll head back to the table and vote for Treadwell."
Ron Paul himself has endorsed just four of his followers-turned-candidates, and one of them, Jim Forsythe, dropped out of his New Hampshire congressional race in April because he lacked funds and name recognition. The others—including New Jersey's Murray Sabrin and North Carolina's B.J. Lawson—have drawn opposition from local Republicans unwilling to take the Paul plunge. (Paul has also endorsed Peter James.)
Paul's reticence stems from not wanting to see his name attached to some candidate with whom he might not agree. "If you have some name recognition and some money, you have to be careful," he says. "To say, 'I'm a Ron Paul Republican,' and to expect some money and an endorsement from me—I don't think that's a good idea."
The other breed of Ron Paul Republican is neither tolerated as a sacrificial lamb nor pushed away as a nuisance. He is the candidate with a fighting chance for a seat the Republicans genuinely hope to contest. Amit Singh isn't counting on a Paul endorsement as much as he's trying to create a local version of the Ron Paul revolution. Mark Ellmore, the Republican candidate who lost the 8th District nomination in 2006 and has been running for it ever since, warns that Singh will "have trouble securing the Republican base," but that's as far as the insults go. "Ron Paul supporters are absolutely great for the Republican Party," Ellmore says.
So while national Republicans never took Ron Paul seriously, Virginia Republicans are sizing up Singh with interest. An internal poll shows him in striking distance of a primary win. Statewide Republican leaders, warm to the idea of an Indian-American candidate, are considering official endorsements.
Ellmore's hail-fellow-well-met attitude is something new for Ron Paul Republicans. They have spent a year being mocked while posting campaign signs, hustling into straw polls, and Googlebombing the Internet. If they had dissolved after the GOP nomination was locked up, that's where their legacy might have ended. Instead they're putting together the first outlines of a political bloc, one that's increasingly independent from the activities of Paul himself. Even if none of them wins this November, they're beginning to force the party to take them seriously at last.
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.