Remember the strained and bemused expressions on the GOP presidential contenders’ faces whenever Ron Paul spoke up during a debate? While Paul excoriated American empire, a split-screen would show the frontrunners dismissing the Texas Congressman as if he were a crazy uncle. A band of “Paulite” Congressional candidates and their netroots supporters want to permanently inject the same antiwar, small-government message their hero frequently added to the GOP debate.
Even as Paul’s still ongoing campaign is largely ignored, he and his followers remain a grassroots phenomenon. Paul blogs and forums receive traffic numbers competitive with popular conservative hubs like Red State and PowerLine; his popularity on YouTube rivals that of Barack Obama; and his book, The Revolution, hovers just below Fareed Zakaria and Barbara Walters on the New York Times bestseller list. Despite the fact that Paul’s bid for the presidency is more quixotic now than ever, a record amount of people voted for him in Idaho’s under-the-radar May 27 Republican primary; in Pennsylvania, Oregon and the four primaries in between, he drew 270,000 votes. After volunteering for his campaign, roughly forty candidates for the House and two for the Senate are running on Paul’s “liberty” platform. While GOP Congressional leaders worry about their fall prospects, these candidates are harnessing netroots-style activism in their quest to become an important constituency within the party.
The various campaigns are not yet as connected as Paul organizers would like, but what ties most of them together is a similar message. Paul-backed Congressional candidates in Michigan, Louisiana, Tennessee and New York all give the same response when asked why the GOP is faring badly in special elections and why their prospects for the fall have earned dim forecasts: because they are sticking with the Bush agenda rather than adopting Paul’s limited government, anti-empire message. “Expansion of big government programs has lost us credibility,” says Amit Singh, one of the thirty “liberty” candidates campaigning to run on the Republican ticket–as opposed to eleven Independents, seven Libertarians, and two Democrats. “We can’t promote our values onto other types of people, they should decide for themselves,” he adds.
Singh, an ex-intelligence contractor who hopes to oust Jim Moran from Virginia’s 8th District, was the first person to sign Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig’s Change Congress pledge, vowing to reform campaign finance by refusing the contributions of PACs or lobbyists. Instead, he relies on Paul-inspired fundraising techniques. He made a video with the Texas Congressman to publicize a “money bomb” like the one Paul supporters held on November 5. 2007, when they raised $4.3 million in twenty-four hours by getting people to make small donations on the Internet. This spiked Singh’s fundraising to surpass his total goal two months into his three-month-old candidacy. Other Paulite candidacies are less sophisticated, like David Gay of Syracuse, New York, and Linda Goldthorpe of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, both fighting to get on the Republican ballot, use Internet fundraising not just for money bombs but to show people in their districts that they are slowly gathering the support and attention of voters from thousands of miles away.
In North Carolina, a 33-year-old doctor named B.J. Lawson was dubbed “Ron Paul Jr.” by his primary opponent, Augustus Cho, the former chairman of the district’s Republican Party. “I call him that because that’s what he is,” said Cho, pointing the audience at a debate to Lawson’s website. He declared that Lawson and Paul aren’t true Republicans, that they will divide the party, and that the Democratic opponent will “take one look at him and spit him out.” Bloggers and commenters promptly surged to defend Lawson as the true conservative, labeling Cho the “Neo-Con Rival.” Lawson won the primary by 71 percent.
An example of web-oriented, bottom-up support is Operation Cat Herder. The project, launched in May by Maryland- based organizer Nathan Estey, gets its name from the temperaments of its targets: “Trying to organize Libertarians is like trying to herd cats.” The concept is to hold together the network that Ron Paul ignited; “We become the glue for the movement,” he says. Congressional candidates can tap into the operation’s contacts, and vice versa: the site houses a growing “skills bank,” which connects candidates to free services for everything from web design to legal aid, a grassroots roadmap, which lists other Paul websites and information about events like July’s ” revolution” march on Capitol Hill. These are potent sources of local manpower for a subset of fledgling politicians whose campaigns face pushback from longstanding incumbents and GOP-endorsed mainstays.
As a sign that the “liberty” message, aided by web-savvy grassroots supporters, can compete with the establishment Republican platform, the Paulites’ Internet presence now rivals the GOP online outpost, Red State, which once kicked them off of its site. “We want to infiltrate the GOP and take it over,” says Nathan. To Jeff Frazee, an official Paul organizer, Estey’s Cat Herder is the type of project that will be essential after the Paul campaign officially ends. If the “revolution” is going to influence the GOP to the degree that Paulites hope for, it will be by using tools like this one as well as communication on blogs and forums. These strategies may be catching on because of, not despite, the freewheeling, anti-authoritarian attitude that distinguishes Libertarians from other conservative groups, who have not yet taken to netroots type organizing.
Paul’s brand of Libertarianism also bears some ugly elements: unequivocal racism in both Paul’s past and on the movement’s periphery. Then there’s their economic policies, which don’t make much sense in light of the current economic crisis. This reality in borne out in the fact that of the thirty candidates who are running on the Republican ballot, less than ten have won their primaries–despite their widespread support on the web, most “liberty” candidates won’t be making an immediate impact within the GOP. Organizers like Frazee and Estey suggest that this is to be expected.
The 2008 election is more of a dry run for 2010 and 2012 than anything else–if the message resonates at all this year, they believe it will be that much more successful in the coming years. But the Paulites may be underestimating their obstacles. A 2007 Pew poll found that more Americans are supportive, not disdainful, of added government programs.