Four years ago, libertarians were an important force in the Republican presidential race. In the campaign for the 2012 nomination, Ron Paul was routinely drawing big crowds on college campuses.
He made a strong third-place showing in Iowa’s important first-in-the-nation caucuses. Even though he failed to win the 2012 nomination, his supporters continued to organize, drawing attention to their small-government beliefs and taking over control of much of the Republican Party of Iowa for a time.
Many observers thought so-called “liberty movement” candidates might have an edge in 2016. But for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the heir apparent to the liberty movement in Iowa, that hasn’t panned out.
Heading into the 2016 cycle, there were headlines predicting that Rand Paul would build on his father’s success and upend the political system.
“Instead, they’ve been having to spend most of their time defending votes they probably already had when this process started,” said Matt Strawn, an Iowa-based GOP strategist.
Strawn is a former Republican Party of Iowa chairman. He was forced out in 2012, and eventually supporters of Ron Paul gained control of the state party for a time.
In the aftermath of the 2012 election, the Paul brand was sullied in Iowa, at least in part, by allegations of improprieties by some of his campaign staffers. And his grassroots supporters eventually lost their hold on the party leadership.
With the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS, Rand Paul has been on the defensive over the laissez-faire foreign policy of libertarians, which often breaks with more hawkish mainstream Republicans.
At a recent event in Ames, Iowa — just days before the Paris attacks — Paul insisted that being a libertarian doesn’t mean being an isolationist.
“Most isolationists sorta, like, want to build a wall around the country and not interact with the rest of the world. Trade is a big part of being part of the world and I’m for trading with the rest of the world. I’m for diplomatic engagement,” Paul told a bar filled mostly with Iowa State University students and paid staffers for a pro-Paul Super PAC.
In Des Moines, longtime Paul supporter Adil Khan, 27, says a non-interventionist approach still makes sense. He blames US military involvement in the Middle East for destabilizing the region.
“You can take out bad, but after it, there could be something that’s worse,” Khan said. “That’s what we’re seeing … If we didn’t go into Iraq, we wouldn’t have a lot of this mess we have today.”
But that’s not the dominant view in the Republican race right now. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio used the issue to take aim at two of his opponents during a recent forum hosted by the Wall Street Journal.
“At least two of my colleagues in the Senate aspiring to the presidency — Sen. Cruz in particular — have voted to weaken the U.S. intelligence programs,” Rubio said. “And the weakening of our intelligence-gathering capabilities leaves America vulnerable.”
Out of the Conversation
Rubio didn’t even name the other Republican hopeful who voted against domestic surveillance of phone records — Rand Paul. That’s because he’s sunk to the bottom of the Republican field.
Even in Iowa, where his father had so much support four years ago, Paul is barely registering in the polls.
The Ron Paul movement energized many young Iowans, including Kelsey Kurtinitis, now 28. She met her husband, Joel, now 31, through their work on Paul’s campaign and the grassroots activism that grew from it.
The couple now has a 7-month-old son, Judah. On a recent afternoon, Kelsey Kurtinitis played with Judah in the living room of their apartment in the small town of Perry.
“We would not have met if it weren’t for Ron Paul, and this little guy, Judah, wouldn’t be here,” she said with a laugh. “So yeah, thanks, Ron Paul!”
Not Libertarian Enough?
So you might think the couple is all in for Rand Paul – but not so fast. Joel Kurtinitis said he still believes in the small-government ideals of the liberty movement, but he’s been disappointed by some of the positions Rand Paul has taken.
“I think Rand’s missed a lot of opportunities because he’s chosen in some ways to water down his message in order to go for that election appeal that he was convinced he needed to win,” Kurtinitis said.
Kurtinis says Rand Paul has been too willing to cozy up to mainstream Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Paul also has fallen out of favor with some libertarians for supporting increases in military spending.
The couple is now backing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the nomination. Cruz is surging, challenging political newcomers like Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Rand Paul supporters like David Fischer, a co-chairman of his Iowa campaign, say they believe Paul is maintaining support from most of the liberty movement, and attracting new voters.
“We don’t obsess over where everybody goes from where they were four years ago. We’re just out selling Rand Paul’s message and attracting as many people to that as possible,” Fischer said. “The poll that matters is the one on caucus night.”
So Many Outsiders
In a campaign year that has seen so much outsider success, Strawn, the GOP strategist, says it’s surprising the Paul brand hasn’t had more resonance. He calls Ron Paul, who was known for pushing back against the party establishment, the “original outsider.”
“I called it in 2012, as I would encounter some of these individuals around the state, that it was really the ‘rage against the machine vote,’ ” Strawn said. “They were just angry; didn’t want anything to do with the political class, the political establishment — they wanted to burn it down and figure out how to build it up later. Now you have some other candidates that are talking like that on the Republican side.”
Four years later, there are even more Republican voters who want to burn the system down. And unfortunately for Rand Paul, there are lots of bigger personalities with more fiery messages promising to do just that.