Divided in Nevada

In America's most libertarian state, libertarians don't know how they'll vote


It's getting harder to find remnants of Ron Paul's remarkable presidential campaign at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. But they're still there. On the wall, next to clips from Playboy and Smoke, you'll find a framed local news story about a late 2007 press conference with brothel owner Dennis Hof and the libertarian Texas congressman. An eight-by-10-inch head shot of Paul hangs in the computer room. In the dining room, you can still see a picture of Hof and some of his girls clutching signs that spell out "Pimpin' for Paul."

But Hof 's support is not transferable. In late August, as the Bob Barr campaign was scrambling for a national foothold, Hof was sitting in the Reno-Tahoe airport waiting for a flight to a Los Angeles charity auction. He told me he's a one-man candidate and has no interest in backing the Libertarian Party nominee.

"Anybody who's considering Bob Barr needs to understand that he's a hypocrite, and that he lied about paying for an abortion for his first wife," Hof said. He paused to answer a call from the plus-sized porn star Ron Jeremy. "I'd much rather these people just be honest. I've got my faults. I know what they are. I eat too much and I sleep with too many extremely hot 18- to-25-year-old girls. But I'm not a hypocrite.

Paul never seemed wholly comfortable with his Bunny Ranch support. Hof 's enthusiasm was a symbol of just how far the rEVOLution reached. But the rancher's disinterest in what the Libertarian Party is up to now is a symbol of something else: the rending of the Paul movement. Walk through a brothel or a casino, look up the low tax rates, and you'd figure Nevada was ripe for libertarian politics. It is, but not in a way that's affecting the Obama-McCain slugfest.

The year began with a flurry of libertarian politicking. In January's caucuses, Ron Paul placed second, behind Mitt Romney and ahead of John McCain. Paul's army outnumbered and outsmarted the rank-and-file GOP, badly depleted by the national party's problems and state party infighting. "There wouldn't even have been a caucus in our area without Paul people," says Juanita Cox, the head (until this summer) of the Storey County GOP.

Paul groups swelled. A Vegas Meetup attended by webbie Arden Osborne grew from fewer than 10 people to more than 200. "It just kept going up until those numbers came in from the caucuses, and it was clear that we weren't going to jump all the hurdles the party had set up for us," Osborne says. On the other side of the state, college libertarian leader Alyssa Cowan of the University of Nevada at Reno went through the same thing. "The most optimistic I ever was about this movement," she says, "was about, oh, 11 p.m. the night before the caucus."

After the caucus several hundred Paul supporters organized for the Republican state convention in Reno and won delegates, but the state party refused to send them to the national convention in Minneapolis. Instead a pro-McCain slate was appointed by conference call. The Paul backers sued. National media outlets started writing about the fissures in Nevada.

The dispute triggered a geographic split among Paul backers. In northern Nevada and in the state's barren rural counties, Paulistas focused on shaming the Republican Party and fomenting a revolution at the Twin Cities convention. In Las Vegas, Osborne and others stayed in the GOP and focused on quietly taking it over for the long term. Paul supporters in both areas ran for office, but their most successful candidate was the Vegas-based state assembly candidate Andrew Brownson, whose door-knocking political organization earned him 23 percent of the vote, tying for second in a four-way primary. "If he'd started earlier," says state Sen. Bob Beers, a Paul-sympathetic Republican who has grown exasperated with the convention coup faction of the movement, "he would have won that race."

For the revolutionaries, Beers is part of the problem. He chaired the convention where the fracas began. Beers calls their story a "misdirection created by a minority of Paul supporters," destructive to their influence in the party. "Losing is terrible," Beers says, arms folded and shaking his head. "I hate to lose. But if you're angry about what's happening with the gavel, you get your own gavel. You
don't subvert the Republican Party process."

Lost in the middle of all this: the Bob Barr campaign. Nevada should be one of Barr's best states. At a dinner of 12 Ron Paul Republicans at a Reno Claim Jumper restaurant, I ask how many of them will support Barr. Only one—Cowan—raises her hand. "He's the only choice we've got," she says. Two others are considering Chuck Baldwin of the paleoconservative Constitution Party. Cox questions whether electronic voting machines cut down Paul's totals, rendering the whole question of who to vote for meaningless. The general attitude is summed up by video producer Cynthia Kennedy: "The big choice is whether to give up on the political process altogether."

The small group of Libertarian Party activists in the Vegas area don't have much of an organization of their own. "Someone needs to devote his time to rebuilding the party," says Nate Santucci, the party's secretary and a candidate for the state Assembly. "I can't. I work all day. I'm on the road part of the year."

Santucci's day job is special effects coordinator for Penn & Teller's five-nights-a-week magic show. It's a "hotbed of libertarians," says Penn Jillette—but not the kind of libertarians who are going to pound the pavement for Barr. Jillette is voting for Barr, but he's not going to become some kind of celebrity advocate.

"I believe in individual rights so much that I don't like any sort of 'what's good for the cause'-type questions," Jillette says. "We have to leave open the possibility that the other side is right, even as we call them assholes."

The party's vice presidential nominee has no time for that kind of reluctance. From his sprawling home in a Henderson, Nevada, country club, overlooking the skyline of the Strip, Wayne Allyn Root hammers out press releases, books radio interviews ("No one has anything bad to say to me!"), and schedules appearances before conservative conferences and Meetup groups. He is concentrating on media instead of personal campaigning because there's no infrastructure to build a personal campaign.

"We have to concentrate on this election," says Root, a professional oddsmaker. "After the election, I want to build up the Libertarian Party of Nevada. When you go to a Republican fundraiser, you're walking into a dining room at the Venetian and eating steak. The Libertarians are holding meetings at the back of a smoky bar."

Root, who still has a photo of himself with George W. Bush on one of his walls, believes that wavering suburban Republicans, not Paul backers, are the winnable base for the state and national Libertarian parties. He rattles off interest groups he wants to bring into the party and talks about running for mayor of Las Vegas in 2011. He's writing a book, The Conscience of a Libertarian, and transferring his interests from sports betting to investment banking and punditry. The theory is that if he sells the message, the party building will follow. "I suspect 40 years from now nobody will remember I was ever involved in gambling," Root says. It's kind of like Winston Churchill. Nobody knows anything about him except that he saved the world from Nazi Germany."

But how much more selling does the libertarian message need in Nevada? Forget the legal gambling and prostitution: This is a state where Bob Beers was able to defeat an incumbent state senator because the latter pushed through a tax hike. Republicans shouldn't be able to alienate libertarians and win elections here. "I've told the McCain people not to piss off the libertarians," says political blogger Chuck Muth, a former Republican, now independent, who's trying to find a friend in a safe Democratic state to vote Barr so he can vote McCain.

At the Bunny Ranch, there's no talk of Barr among the staff. There's a little discussion of Obama and McCain. Neither of them can touch this business, but they will not support the enterprise's political values like Paul did either. "I don't like either of them," says Air Force Amy, the most famous of the Bunny Ranch girls. "I may move to Sweden."

David Weigel (dweigel@reason.com) is an associate editor of reason.