"I want to give you a copy of our rulebook. Did you get one of our rulebooks? These are the rules that they need to follow up in Washington. Right now we're seeing what happens when you forget them."
B.J. Lawson, Republican candidate for Congress in North Carolina's 4th district, was standing outside an early voting center in Morrisville on Saturday handing out some of the 50,000 pocket Constitutions he bought from the Cato Institute, along with his one-page campaign flier folded inside. Early voting began at 8 a.m. with four boxes of Constitutions. When it ended at 5 p.m., Lawson had just handed out the last one.
"It's small," he told two young black voters. "You can whip it out"—he whipped it out—"in case of an emergency."
"Yeah, if there's a constitutional crisis," said one voter, nodding and credulous.
Nine months ago, dozens of Republicans claiming to be inspired by the longshot presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) jumped into national politics for themselves. Some lost their primary elections, including New Jersey Senate candidate Murray Sabrin and Virginia House candidate Amit Singh. Others won the right to be token candidates in rock-solid urban Democratic districts. (Among this group is New York congressional candidate John Wallace, who on Sunday released a rambling statement demanding that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) release his birth certificate, which the Democrat has already done.) The one Ron Paul-inspired general election candidate for Senate, South Carolina's Bob Conley (not a Republican, but a populist who calls himself "your grandfather's kind of Democrat") won his primary in a squeaker and proceeded to raise less than $50,000.
Lawson has broken out of this pack and become not just the most credible Ron Paul Republican, but one of the most credible Republican challengers of 2008, period. A 34-year-old doctor who built and then sold a company that made medical records accessible via personal digital assistants, Lawson has raised nearly $600,000 in a district where the last Republican candidate raised less than $50,000—half out of his own pocket. He has received a helpful endorsement from Ron Paul, including pleas for national "money bombs" on his behalf. And while putting away a GOP primary opponent who attacked him for his libertarian views (Lawson won by 41 points), he built a real campaign infrastructure. On Saturday, his Cary, North Carolina headquarters was packed with volunteers calling voters, bundling fliers, and taking turns turning out early votes.
But at the end of the day, Lawson is a Republican candidate in the non-Republican year of 2008. North Carolina, which no Democrat has carried since 1976, is being heavily targeted by Barack Obama's campaign. Lawson's district, which was gerrymandered in 2002 to include more Democratic areas to help re-elect incumbent Rep. David Price, is ground zero for Obama's state effort, and political tipsters rate the district "safe Democrat." In Wake County, where most of the district's population lives, the Obama campaign has registered thousands of new voters. An area that voted 51-49 for Bush over Kerry is showing as much as a 17-point Obama lead.
Lawson is blunt about the problem here. "The party has been so weakened by the tragic mismanagement of our country these past eight years," he explains. "Price has been running on Obama's coattails and saying he wants to be part of a team for change. Well, I'm sorry, but you've been there for 20 years. You had your chance. It doesn't make any sense for the voters to hire the guy who threw the brick through their window to fix the glass."
Lawson's strategy has been to distance himself from the GOP ticket and cast himself as a "change" candidate—a perfect down-ballot match for all of these Obama voters. His campaign literature contrasts Lawson's opposition to the Iraq War and the PATRIOT Act with Price's votes for funding the war and legalizing more government surveillance. "The incumbent has been there for 20 years," Lawson told voters in Morrisville. "He's working for his corporate donors, not for you."
These lines are winning over more voters than a generic Republican message might. Price has had to engage in a race he once took for granted, running ads attacking Lawson, and bringing some D.C. staff down here to help him out. But there are probably too many straight-ticket voters furious at Republicans for Lawson to convert. Jesse Benoit, a 33-year old who grew up in New York, compliments Lawson for what he's doing when the candidate hands him a pocket Constitution. But Benoit is too frustrated with the GOP to consider splitting his ticket like he's done in the past. "He's trying to change his party, which he has to, because it's not his party anymore," Benoit said. "He's a democratic conservative, is what I'd call him. But the national party has moved so far away from that."
Some voters were less interested in straight-ticket voting and, as such, more gettable for Lawson. "I want to know about Social Security disability," said Vicky Smith, a middle-aged voter sporting sunglasses and a gem-encrusted pumpkin sweater.
"The government's been lying to us in a lot of ways for a while now," Lawson says. "One of the ways it lies is in how it calculates inflation, so when Social Security benefits increase, they're getting increased much less."
"Exactly!" says Smith. "I mean, with the property taxes and all that we have to pay—it's ridiculous. We're on the low end of the totem poll. We can't take it."
"Exactly," says Lawson, nodding, hands on hips. "We've got to stop taxing Social Security benefits and start being honest about how much it costs to live, so we can eventually transition out of Social Security and into something more fair."
"We're on the low end of the totem poll," Smith says. "What do you call it, lower-class?"
"And it's getting worse and worse," Lawson says. "We're spending $700 billion to bail out the banks—"
"Exactly!" she interrupted. "Exactly!"
Anger at the bailout has helped Lawson frame his message down the stretch. "It's finally blown away the illusion that our government is responsible to the people," he explains. "Nobody wants to bail out Wall Street when the average American is losing his job. The bailout didn't change the campaign, but it put an exclamation point on what I had been saying."
State Republicans have warmed to Lawson since the primary. "We're the grassroots of the party here," says volunteer John Lahtinen, a Paul supporter who helped Lawson work the early voters on Saturday. Lawson's distasteful connections to Ron Paul are outweighed, in Republican minds, by the strength of the race he's running. "Every dollar Price spends is a dollar he can't give to someone to use somewhere else," Lawson says.
Even if Price wins, Lawson is still cheered by an organization that "came out of the woodwork" and survived past the flash of Ron Paul's presidential campaign.
"Maybe," says Lawson, "I'll become a community organizer."
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.