Trouble in Paulistine

Ron Paul’s followers now run the Iowa GOP, but that doesn’t mean libertarianism will win in 2016.

Rand Paul
Rand Paul won’t win the Iowa Caucuses just because his dad did.

Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

DES MOINES, Iowa—The last time Republicans tried to hold caucuses in Iowa, they ended up with three winners. Mitt Romney won the initial count of the nonbinding delegates by eight votes on Jan. 3, 2012. Two weeks later a new count that actually included every precinct gave the poll to Rick Santorum by 34 votes. Seven months after that, the forces of Ron Paul swarmed the contest that actually elected bound delegates for Tampa. The result: Twenty-two of Iowa’s 28 delegates nominated Ron Paul for president from the convention floor.

The “liberty movement” (that’s the preferred catchall term in Iowa for Paul’s followers) stuck around the state, and took over. Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker was a Ron Paul supporter. So were seven of the 18 current members of the state committee. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul leads narrowly in ridiculously early polls of the next caucuses. He leads in New Hampshire, too. The first two states on the nomination calendar happen to be bastions of Paul voters. No one has won both states and lost the party’s nomination. These facts make Rand Paul even more of a force in Washington; they give the libertarian wing of the party heretofore unimagined clout.

“That foundation that exists within the party structure that was built around Ron Paul and libertarians is an advantage for Rand,” said Rep. Steve King in a short interview at the weekend’s Family Leadership Summit. “Any other candidate would be glad to be in that position.”

But how solid is that position? On Saturday I met Spiker, an affable 34-year-old real estate agent, at Fong’s Pizza in downtown Des Moines, where he argued that the Paul movement’s takeover of the Iowa GOP means less than advertised. It doesn’t soften up the state for Rand Paul. Yes, he is chairman, and Ron Paul campaign veterans David Fischer and Drew Ivers are now the party co-chairman and the finance chairman. That just means Paul’s forces are tied down with party bureaucracy.

“It actually makes it much harder for Rand,” said Spiker. “If you look at myself, Drew, and David, we were very active in the Iowa Campaign for Liberty.” He was referring to the group founded by Ron Paul in 2008 to build networks in the states. “We organized grassroots efforts around Audit the Fed and other things that were beneficial for the movement. We’re not doing that now. And look, if we were trying to benefit Rand, we wouldn’t bring Ted Cruz in, like we’re doing for the Reagan [fundraising] dinner in October.”

Obviously, even if they wanted to, the Paul movement’s allies in the state party couldn’t use their positions to organize for him. At best, they prevent the “establishment”—a word even Spiker uses—from trying to thwart a possible Rand Paul campaign. “I wouldn’t say the Paul movement is stronger because Liberty minded people are elected to the State Central Committee,” Chad Steenhoek, a committee member who was endorsed by Ron Paul, emailed me. “I would say that the [Republican Party of Iowa] will not use tactics to exclude them, which I believe the RINOs [Republicans In Name Only] in our state would do if they were in charge of the process.”

Here’s the problem: When it mattered, the RINOs were in charge. At the Republican National Convention, while the wider world was distracted by Clint Eastwood, the party tweaked the delegate selection process to prevent future insurgencies. Paul’s people had overcome losses in the nonbinding precinct caucus polls of Iowa, Minnesota, and Maine by organizing and winning delegates when it counted, in little-noticed state conventions.

The new RNC rules change all that. The popular vote from those widely covered, widely attended precinct caucuses will now determine delegate counts. In Iowa in 2012, that would have meant probably six delegates each for Romney and Santorum, and five for Paul. Not 22 for Paul. Or it might have meant every available delegate went to Santorum, because another new rule allows states that vote before April 1 to assign all their delegates to whomever wins the popular vote.

Later this week, at the annual RNC meeting in Boston, Spiker will support an effort to change that latter “winner take all rule.” He won’t and can’t change the delegate-binding rules. That closes off a strategy that Ron Paul mastered and reduces the odds that a few candidates might skip Iowa and leave some turf to Rand.

And that turf isn’t as solid as it looks either. Nationally, sure, Rand Paul’s following in the GOP is stronger than his father’s. He polls better among Republicans; candidates clamor for his endorsement; Mitch McConnell’s tapped Paul family consigliere Jesse Benton to be his 2014 campaign manager.

But Rand Paul’s base in Iowa does not equal everyone who voted for his father plus. Ron Paul’s base in Iowa welded together economic and anti-war libertarians with home-school activists and social conservatives. There’s more competition for that vote now, thanks in part to the Paul family’s success in spreading the gospel.

“The 22 percent that Ron Paul got here is more like a ceiling than a floor,” said Steve Deace, a West Des Moines-based radio host, when we talked in his rec room plastered in Star Wars and Michigan sports memorabilia. “Go back to the gay marriage decisions at the Supreme Court this year. The gaffe that he made praising Anthony Kennedy? That was a devastating gaffe. You’re talking about praising a guy who essentially wrote an anti-Christian polemic disguised as a Supreme Court brief. I could have read that at Think-frickin’-Progress.”

Outside of Iowa’s conservative circles, Rand Paul’s comment on the Prop 8 ruling didn’t really read as a “gaffe.” Kennedy, in striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, accused the Congress that passed it of merely trying to “harm a politically unpopular group.” Paul reacted by praising Kennedy as someone “who doesn’t just want to be in front of opinion but wants government to keep up with opinion.” To a conservative like Deace, that read like Paul pivoting to a popular position—he’s not as much opening a big Republican tent as setting up kiosks and selling different wares. “The idea that you can build a coalition around you isn’t true,” he says. “It’s about where you are on the issues. The focus on personality comes later. That’s what Reagan understood … that’s why Ted Cruz appeals to people.”

Paul’s allies do understand that. “If Rand Paul runs and he counts on the entire Ron Paul group to vote automatically for him, it would be a mistake,” wrote Steenhoek. “He is unlikely to make that mistake. I believe he understands the ‘Paul’ coalition is Liberty minded, not personality minded.”

It had better be, because the Paul family’s last venture into Iowa ended in an ongoing scandal. State Sen. Kent Sorenson, who’d backed Michele Bachmann over Paul, dramatically switched sides at the close of the race. Bachmann, who apparently had been giving Sorenson a paid role, accused him of taking a payoff. Sorenson denied it. But Sorenson is under investigation, and the Iowa Republican, a Santorum-friendly blog, keeps leaking phone calls and emails obtained by the 2008 Paul campaign’s former national field director, all of them suggesting that Sorenson expected money from his new boss.

So far, even Paulworld’s critics don’t see the connection between Sorenson and the current leadership of the Iowa GOP. (Sorenson ignored a request for comment, as he’s done basically since I saw him at the 2012 Iowa victory party for Paul and he said, “I’m not doing any interviews.”) The point is that the national Paul organization that got close to winning Iowa in 2012 can’t just restart the clock if Rand Paul runs. His Iowa allies are now battle-scarred; his following is going to be courted by every other candidate who waves the Gadsden flag.

“I believe that Rand can benefit from the loyalty of his followers outside of the central committee,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley in a Monday interview. “They’re in power because they outmaneuvered, in a fair way, people with other points of view. But they won’t affect the outcome of the caucus any more than I will.”