Karen Kwiatkowski, a Republican candidate for Congress in Virginia, rarely passes up an opportunity to scold Washington politicians about runaway defense spending, which she says is an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars that does little to make Americans safer. Halfway across the country, Tisha Casida, a Colorado Independent, says she’ll push to end the drug war and legalize marijuana if she’s elected to the House. In Florida, Calen Fretts, a Libertarian seeking to unseat a veteran Republican congressman, promises that if he’s elected he’ll begin working to abolish the U.S. Federal Reserve. “As people increase the size and scope of government,” Fretts says, “there’s got to be a few of us to resist it.”
These candidates have two things in common: All are long shots seeking office for the first time. And all were inspired to run by the same man—Ron Paul.
After 12 terms in the House, Paul, who is 76, says he’ll retire at year’s end. Though he gamely insists he can still defeat Mitt Romney and capture the Republican nomination, his presidential runs have always been about forcing other candidates, and the public, to pay attention to his libertarian arguments for eliminating most taxes, closing federal agencies, bringing U.S. troops home from overseas, legalizing drugs, outlawing official secrecy, dismantling the Fed, returning to the gold standard, and generally getting the government to get out of the way.
If forcing his don’t-tread-on-me, minimalist philosophy into the mainstream is the benchmark, Paul can claim victory and return to Texas a happy man. The professional political class may ridicule him as an eccentric kook leading a cantankerous army of potheads who invade chat rooms with ALLCAPS rants about government overreach. (And no doubt there’s something to that—the most worshipful Paul evangelists can be hard to stomach.) But listening to his rivals in the GOP debates demand that the Fed be audited and the Departments of Energy and Education be shuttered, it’s clear that many of Paul’s positions, once considered extreme, are now routine Republican talking points—and that his influence over conservative politics greatly outweighs his low poll rankings and back-of-the-pack primary returns. “I believe our time has come,” says Paul, who quickly tempers this uncharacteristic display of optimism. “It’s still going to be a knock-down dragged-out fight.”
Paul leaves behind a small army of brawlers itching to take up the battle in his name. This election year, at least 65 of his supporters are campaigning for local, state, or national office in 23 states. They join more than a dozen Paul acolytes who won elections in 2010, including GOP Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who is seeking a second term—not to mention Paul’s son Rand, who was elected to the Senate as a Republican in Kentucky.
Other Paul followers and former aides have maneuvered their way into Republican Party leadership positions in Nevada, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, and Maine, where they are attempting to rewrite party platforms and keep establishment Republicans from giving Paul’s 70-plus primary delegates to Mitt Romney. Usually, “when a candidate drops out, the followers go too,” says Aaron Libby, a 29-year-old Maine blueberry farmer and Paul die-hard who was elected to the state legislature in 2010. “They were following a candidate; we are following a movement.”
This kind of fervor is common among Paul candidates, many of whom date their interest in politics to the moment they first saw him speak. Kwiatkowski, a 51-year-old cattle farmer and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, was raised by Goldwater Republicans. “I voted for Reagan,” she says. “But he grew government, he didn’t reduce it.” Disillusioned, Kwiatkowski left the GOP. Then, in 2003, she read about Paul’s staunch opposition to the Iraq War—which she thought was an irresponsible use of troops and money—and his shrink-the-government philosophy. She was hooked, and started attending Paul rallies. Eventually, she rejoined the Republican Party. “I came back because Ron Paul is a Republican,” she says. “If he became independent or a libertarian, I would follow.”
Kwiatkowski has nothing good to say about Mitt Romney—“a big government socialist running as a Republican”—and feels the same about her own GOP congressman, nine-term incumbent Bob Goodlatte, whom she faults for voting to raise the debt ceiling, among a litany of other grievances. Instead of grousing about it, she decided to challenge him in the primary. She’s unconcerned that she has almost no chance of unseating him. The point is to show voters that mainstream Republicans have lost sight of what the party once stood for. “People are really responsive to the ideas,” she says. “They don’t care if they come from Karen Kwiatkowski, Ron Paul, or Thomas Jefferson.”
Other Paul-inspired candidates tell similar stories of their political awakening. Casida, a 30-year-old graphic designer running as an Independent in a sprawling Colorado district, says she had little interest in becoming a politician until 2008, when she read End the Fed, perhaps Paul’s best-known manifesto. “It opened my eyes,” she says. She read everything she could about him and went to see Paul speak. Casida decided to run for office herself after she tried to start a farmer’s market but discovered it would mean paying thousands of dollars in fees—evidence, she says, of government run amok.
“So many of our problems stem from unconstitutional acts at the federal level,” she says. Casida has little chance of defeating the Republican incumbent Scott Tipton. She’ll be outspent by hundreds of thousands of dollars, though she’s managed to raise $20,000, much of it from Paul supporters around the country.
The candidates quote liberally from Paul on their websites and in their speeches. Few receive his personal endorsement—he won’t back one Republican running to unseat another, and tends to think candidates should make it on their own. One thing the Paul hopefuls don’t try to emulate: their mentor’s rambling, circular sentences and slide-whistle speaking voice. “There are many examples in Ron Paul’s career where he didn’t phrase things in the best way he could,” says Amash, diplomatically. “If he’s in a debate, he might stray from answering the direct point of the question. … But he’s Ron Paul.” Jim Forsythe, a Paul protégé who won a seat in New Hampshire’s legislature in 2010 and is seeking a second term this year, says he tries to distill Paul’s complex ideas for voters. “He’ll give an answer that I agree with and people cringe,” Forsythe says. “I think, how could I say that differently?” Rand Paul provides a model. Instead of demanding, like his father, that marijuana be legalized, he has sponsored a bill that would end minimum mandatory sentencing for pot convictions. The difference, Rand Paul says, is one “of degrees.”
To encourage more Paul followers to enter the arena, Gigi Bowman, a Long Island real estate agent, started LibertyCandidates.com, which runs meet-ups for Paul supporters and candidates and offers advice on running for office. It may take years for some of the greener hopefuls to get their acts together. “Eventually,” she says, “they’ll win seats.”
Paul himself already seems to be looking toward the exit. “I think it’s sort of human nature to key around one person who is the spokesman,” he says. “But I think it’s much bigger than that. I don’t think that what we are doing is going to go away, regardless of what happens in the election. An army can’t stop an idea whose time has come.”