When Thomas Massie won the Republican nomination for Congress in Kentucky’s fourth district, wags dubbed it a second “Randslide.” Almost alone among elected officials in the state, Sen. Rand Paul supported Massie. “I don’t like anyone telling me how to vote,” Paul said in his video endorsement. “I make up my own mind and vote for the candidate who best supports term limits, balanced budgets, and the Constitution.”
It didn’t hurt that Massie had been an early supporter of Rand Paul during the 2010 primary, or that he had endorsed the senator’s plan to balance the budget in five years. But Massie also enjoyed the backing of the senator’s father, Rep. Ron Paul, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, the Club for Growth, and Young Americans for Liberty. Massie repeatedly invoked “the liberty movement” in his victory speech.
Some of Massie’s opponents liked to use another l-word. Alecia Webb-Edgington, the candidate backed by most of Kentucky’s GOP elected officials, proudly proclaimed that she was a real Republican rather than a libertarian. (For this, columnist Jack Hunter dubbed Webb-Edgington a “female Lindsey Graham.”) A Facebook page in support of her campaign claimed that libertarians were trying to buy the primary at the expense of conservatives. “We don’t need any more socialists, communists, or libertarians in the Republican Party,” she told a local Lincoln Day Dinner.
Webb-Edgington touted her law-and-order credentials. Although a member of the Kentucky legislature, her ads were just as likely to mention her service in the state police—even when she was talking about spending cuts. In one commercial, Webb-Edgington noted that she had pulled over child predators and other undesirables, something much tougher than trimming fat from the federal budget. “After fighting real criminals, these guys in Washington don’t scare me one bit,” she said. For good measure, the camera repeatedly panned to the candidate’s legs.
Fourth district voters were unmoved. Massie won 45 percent of the vote to Webb-Edgington’s 30 percent, with Gary Moore, who was favored by some social conservatives, taking another 15 percent. Democrats have seldom won this House seat, with the recent exception of conservative former Rep. Ken Lucas, and aren’t seriously contesting it this fall. “To call the Democratic candidate a gadfly is an insult to gadflies,” says David Adams, a local Tea Party activist who managed Rand Paul’s campaign during the GOP primary two years ago. Massie is a near-lock to win in November.
But libertarian money certainly did play a role in the race. Liberty for All, a super PAC started by a 21-year-old Texas college student, dropped nearly $600,000 to fund operations and television ads on Massie’s behalf. This soon crowded out the other candidates’ negative ads. Even the New York Times took notice: “With their favorite having lost the nomination for president, [Ron] Paul’s dedicated band of youthful supporters is looking down-ballot and swarming lightly guarded Republican redoubts like state party conventions in an attempt to infiltrate the top echelons of the party.” The Gray Lady quoted Massie as saying of the super PAC, “They owned the airwaves, everything from the Food Channel to Court TV.”
John Ramsey, the group’s founder, points out that he is just following his supporters’ lead. “Thomas Massie matches our values,” he says. “Our supporters saw an engineer and job creator in Northern Kentucky as a good candidate.” Ramsey says of his PAC, “We’re just trying to make the world a little freer.” Adams puts it a bit differently: “When opponents in a Republican primary are essentially reduced to complaining about the First Amendment, with 20-20 hindsight that was the point when the race was over.”
Massie is representative of a new breed of liberty-minded candidate. He is a strong fiscal conservative who emphasizes cutting government spending and reducing the national debt, but he doesn’t toe the neoconservative line on civil liberties or foreign policy. Massie told Young Americans for Liberty that he opposed the Iraq War and wants to end the conflict in Afghanistan. He is against the National Defense Authorization Act’s indefinite-detention provisions, the PATRIOT Act, and the TSA. He is for auditing the Federal Reserve.
But Massie didn’t beat Republican primary voters over the heads by focusing inordinately on issues where he might disagree with the base. He mostly let his opponents do the talking about libertarianism. And he isn’t just an ideologue. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, Massie is accomplished in the private sector. He founded a technology company that employed 70 people and secured two dozen patents. Massie was elected Lewis County judge executive in 2010 and used his position to attack government waste.
In 2008, many of the first Ron Paul Republicans to win their primaries did so in Democratic districts where they had little shot of prevailing in November. That year four of six GOP challengers to Maryland’s incumbent congressional Democrats were Paul supporters, but none of the incumbents were vulnerable. Even B.J. Lawson, a talented candidate who ran two competitive races for Congress, sought election in a district where the odds were stacked against him.
David Weigel offered the following description of such candidates: “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” who couldn’t be dislodged in primaries. But now, candidates like Massie are beginning to target open seats and vulnerable incumbents in districts where the Republican nomination actually means something.
“We want candidates to be in the party, in the district, and running in the year they can win,” says Preston Bates, executive director of Liberty for All. These contenders are also helped by a certain hardening in the mood of the Republican electorate. As recently as 2004, Arlen Specter could be competitive in a GOP primary while being to the left of his party platform on a host of issues ranging from abortion to taxes. Indeed, Lincoln Chafee was to Specter’s left and won a bruising Republican primary in 2006.
Over the last two years, incumbents who could check most boxes on conservative litmus-test issues have started losing primaries over isolated votes in favor of bailouts. Even the perception that one is too close to the party establishment can be damaging. Trey Grayson, the Kentucky Republican who lost a Senate nomination in the original Randslide, didn’t run as a moderate. But he did seem comfortable with GOP power brokers and beneficiaries of the bank bailout.
Not all of the conservative primary challengers who have benefited from this trend are in the mold of Thomas Massie or Rand Paul. Many of these upstarts express their willingness to mix it up with the establishment by being equally eager for the country to fight more wars. But it is certainly an opening that Paul-influenced Republicans are well situated to exploit. After all, what kind of candidates are most likely to have opposed TARP or to have a record criticizing government growth even under Republicans? “Any enemy of freedom, be they Republican or Democrat, should be shaking in their boots,” says Ramsey.
More important than scooping up Ron Paul delegates to the Republican National Convention, Paulites are descending on state and local GOP gatherings to advance like-minded candidates. Local party leaders, of whom the liberty movement can claim an increasing number, may become local elected officials; they also can help swing competitive primaries. People yelling and screaming outside the convention hall seldom have as much power to effect change as those attending the boring meetings inside. It’s a tactic previously used in Republican politics by groups as disparate as the Goldwater movement and the Christian right.
Massie’s win may have particularly important long-term implications. With Ron Paul retiring from Congress after November, he needs successors, and the small band of constitutional conservatives in the House needs reinforcements. Barring a successful primary challenge against him, Massie could potentially hold his northern Kentucky House seat for as long as he wants it. And with Rand Paul possibly harboring national ambitions, it gives both men room to move up without setting back the movement.
“The liberty movement is succeeding in overthrowing the Republican establishment,” Bates says confidently. “The Karl Rove fear-and-smear types are dying out in the party.” But obituaries for the Republican establishment may be premature, given Mitt Romney’s relatively easy path to the GOP presidential nomination. And the libertarian wing of the party has experienced some setbacks this year.
In Utah, legislator Carl Wimmer—who endorsed Ron Paul for president over Romney in the heavily Mormon state—lost a congressional nomination to Mia Love at the state convention. Wimmer had the backing of Mike Lee but unexpectedly failed to make it to the primary. (This is partly attributable to an overzealous Wimmer supporter referring to Love, who is black, as a “novelty” candidate on the convention floor.) But he was thought to have had a decent chance of winning.
The candidacy of Evan Feinberg, a former Rand Paul aide who challenged Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Tim Murphy in a primary, was a much longer shot. Feinberg billed himself as a “principled, conservative voice for western Pennsylvania” and had impeccable movement credentials: he chaired the Grove City College Republicans, worked at the Heritage Foundation, and was a staffer for Sen. Tom Coburn. He was mostly noninterventionist on foreign policy, but his wife was an Iraq War veteran and he tended to stress the fiscal cost of military adventurism. Murphy nevertheless trounced Feinberg by 28 points.
Yet the inroads being made by such candidates are undeniable. So is the strategy that tends to produce success, as evidenced by Massie’s victory. Republicans like Massie rely on libertarian activists for fundraising and organizational muscle, putting them in a position to be competitive in the first place. But they don’t simply bank on a money bomb or a Ron Paul endorsement being the game-changer. They campaign on local issues, they build connections with their constituents, and they reach out to a much larger base in the party than the Paul vote, which in some places is merely in the single digits.
The people giving Thomas Massie money care deeply about his views on the Patriot Act and formal congressional declarations of war. But many of the Kentuckians voting for Massie were more interested in how he saved money for Lewis County taxpayers by canceling a bogus contract: the county had been paying to rent land from a company that had actually sold it 20 years ago. Massie put an end to it. “Voters were looking for someone they could really trust to be for small government,” says Adams. “Not just the rhetoric, but to actually mean it.”
It’s a delicate balance. If Massie didn’t hold strict constitutionalist positions on foreign policy and civil liberties, he might not have raised the funds he needed to win. But neither would he have won if he simply ranted and raved about the Fed in his interactions with local voters. He found an intersection of politics and principle that often escapes Ron Paul Republicans and establishment types alike.
There’s a precedent for what Massie is doing: Ron Paul himself. Paul has held a House seat for 12 terms, winning election to Congress three times as a non-incumbent, by hewing to a similar strategy. He raises money from a national libertarian donor base that is attracted to him mainly because of his differences with the rest of the party. But Congressman Paul reflects local social mores rather than those of his libertarian benefactors. His office practices good constituent services, and he does the things a politician needs to do to win local elections. The result has been a successful congressional career pushing an anti-statist message, capped by two national campaigns that have given his ideas a wider audience than ever before.
None of this would be a bad thing for a new legislator like Thomas Massie to aspire to. “It’s like the first shot in a war,” Adams argues. “It may not be very loud, but look at what it starts.” Massie’s supporters hope that what started as a Randslide can continue with a “Massie-cre.” And it may show that the Paul movement is no longer just a family affair.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.