I came home exhausted on Caucus night, just as I had many other nights in the year leading up to our first-in-the-nation nominating contest.
As a veteran of the Ron Paul revolution, I considered myself a hardened political warrior, charging the trenches of the establishment and lobbing internet hand grenades at weak-kneed moderates and security-state neocons alike.
My wife and I met through Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign, and Ron was personally involved in our engagement. I was a regional director for Dr. Paul here in Iowa, and, under his state campaign chairs, managed the laborious delegate effort that resulted in Iowa delivering a majority of our national delegates to Ron Paul in Tampa.
As the 2012 campaign wound down, I undertook two new initiatives.
A couple of friends had an idea for a state organization to leverage the strength of the liberty movement into state and local issues, and together we launched Liberty Iowa, which has grown into the most robust libertarian organization in the state.
I also ran for a seat on Iowa’s Republican state central committee, and became part of a libertarian coup that wrested power from the Iowa establishment for two years.
Each of these endeavors included hard-fought battles both political and personal, but it was always worthwhile for the sake of helping people wake up and smell the coffee of individual liberty. The movement was small, but we stuck together and were growing rapidly into a formidable force within the GOP. Iowa’s political analysts and media sources started regarding us with a sort of grudging respect, and the question of the “liberty vote” came up repeatedly during the 2014 midterm elections.
Of course the train of Rand Paul 2016 had already started to chug as well, and many of us were engrossed in the what-ifs of a Rand Paul run.
Rand had alienated much of his father’s base with consecutive endorsements of establishment fixtures Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell, and a lot of liberty people around the state quietly grumbled that the apple had fallen too far from the tree.
Those of us actively working to grow the liberty base and keep our people involved spent a lot of time defending Rand against accusations of selling out. We had seen too much real success here in Iowa to believe that the future of libertarianism lay only in message candidates and internet activism. We knew that a Rand Paul presidential run could do what two Ron Paul runs could not — bring libertarians together with conservatives and tea partiers into a winning coalition.
Quietly, the Ron Paul army left the Gary Johnson purity police behind and began gearing up for Rand 2016.
A Time For Choosing
Many of us only noticed Ted Cruz as an accessory to the great Rand Paul filibuster of 2013 — a guy we knew had enjoyed strong support from libertarians for his senate run, and a fitting sidekick for the heir apparent.
But as time wore on, Rand seemed less and less inclined to identify with the liberty movement, describing himself as “libertarian-ish” and seemingly desperate to dissociate politically from his father and the movement he spawned. Libertarians around Iowa and the nation balked as he added Maine Senator Susan Collins to his endorsement list, lined up a private meeting with Goldman-Sachs executives, and even accepted an invitation to a DC fundraiser for Iowa’s establishment Governor, Terry Branstad, even as the Governor spent his political capital actively trying to oust the Paul faithful — including myself — from the leadership of the state party.
Other problems began to surface with the evangelical and tea party voters we hoped to win over before 2016. When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Rand Paul went on the record praising the majority opinion — regarded by some as an anti-Christian polemic — and suggesting that Republicans simply “agree to disagree”. Later, Paul stumbled on the same issue by going AWOL during the Indiana religious freedom law controversy.
Those of us stumping for Rand early knew this would cause a firestorm within the Christian community, as the gay marriage issue had already begun a rapid metamorphosis into a credible threat to religious liberty.
By the fall of 2013, those of us leading the liberty crowd in Iowa were working just to keep people together and rally around common state goals — like ending highway speed cameras and police militarization, and fighting a state gas tax hike. To many, the national dialogue was just too discouraging to invest much energy in.
When the debt ceiling fight erupted in the fall of 2013, we expected to see Rand take the lead again, fighting tooth and nail to stop Obamacare and force congress into fiscal restraint.
What we got instead, was the backup.
Ted Cruz’s 21-hour speech was just part of the enthralling episode. He single-handedly forced a government shutdown, drew the ire of Mitch McConnell, and held the establishment deal-makers at bay long enough for an army of activists to swarm DC in opposition to President Obama’s closure of national monuments.
It was no coincidence that our libertarian-dominated state party invited Cruz to keynote our Reagan dinner a few weeks later.
By the time 2014 rolled around, the talk was much less about Rand Paul, and much more about Paul, Cruz, and Lee, the whacko bird triumvirate that had now formed a close alliance in the Senate.
Back in Iowa, midterm primaries were heating up, and the Liberty Movement was actively engaged in two congressional fights, while also allying with hard-line social conservatives to defend our State Party turf against a Branstad-led attempt to drive us out. Few of us had time to think about the presidential race.
That’s when the meeting happened.
A handful of grassroots evangelical, tea party, and libertarian leaders were invited to meet with Ted Cruz for an extensive roundtable Q&A in Ames, where the Senator was scheduled to speak at an event for influential Iowa evangelical group The Family Leader.
For two hours we pummeled him with questions as he presented his vision of stitching the Reagan coalition back together.
I introduced myself as a Ron Paul guy, and asked the Senator whether he was willing to slash and burn the Federal government the way that Ron had proposed. His answer was unexpectedly deferential, expressing deep admiration for, and gratitude to, the Liberty Movement. He assured us that though he did not call himself a libertarian and could not promise to agree on everything, he shared many of our goals, including drastic and specific limitations of federal power.
I came away from the meeting impressed, but not yet entirely sold. It was one thing to indulge a couple libertarians in a friendly group of pastors and Tea Partiers, quite another to sell his record to a group of Revolution die-hards. I needed a second opinion.
The follow-up roundtable I organized in the beginning of 2015 was a test for Ted. I brought together a relentless group of issue-first libertarians, several of whom I knew beyond any doubt would be supporting Rand Paul.
Forgoing the stump speech pleasantries, Cruz engaged us with confidence and knowledge, challenging us to skip the softball questions and get to some areas of disagreement.
This request, of course, we obliged.
Cruz spoke our language, and held his own on a wide range of liberty issues including state nullification, the military-industrial complex, and drug policy. There were some areas of disagreement, and his appeal to us wasn’t grounded in ideological purism, but in common policy goals. Still, even those who still had reservations came away with more respect for his candid approach and willingness to engage us directly.
A Movement to Identity
A few weeks after the meeting, Cruz’s staff quietly began informing us of the Senator’s intent to announce, and asking us for commitments to support him for President.
Such a choice is hard enough for anyone, but for members of the tight-knit liberty community, it was even harder. We knew that Rand would be rolling out his campaign soon, and banking on all of his father’s supporters to fall in line. Undercutting Rand’s political machine by publicly advertising libertarian support for his competitor was asking for trouble.
I just didn’t know exactly how much trouble.
After a lot of thought and prayer, counsel and research, my wife and I became some of the first members of the Liberty Movement to publicly endorse Cruz.
While we immediately set about building a libertarian network in support of Ted, we paid a personal price all year long, as did others who joined us.
At the time, I was a fairly new writer trying to elbow my way into the political blogosphere; my web traffic took a hit, our personal relationships frayed, and we became the target of relentless discrediting efforts.
Traitors, backstabbers, sellouts, frauds.
The hate was poured on for months, further fueled by our unexpected success: by summer we had assembled a strong team of well-known and respected Iowa libertarians to combat Team Rand’s narrative of a libertarian consensus, including nearly all of our state’s libertarian-leaning elected officials.
We began networking on a grassroots level, breaking out the contact lists and meeting up with Ron Paul friends over coffee or lunch, and talking about the great divide. Some flatly rejected the idea of joining Cruz, others said they were still on the sidelines and not ready to get involved. But some were ready to join, and hit the ground running.
The invisible libertarian network began to buzz with something unfamiliar to us: competition. Team Paul declared themselves to have the only “liberty” candidate in the race, and both candidate and campaign frequently insisted that Ron Paul’s base would never support Cruz.
Their narrative took a hit in September, when Cruz scored an unexpectedly close second-place finish in a libertarian straw poll. Rand’s team released a pointed statement attempting to ward off the Cruz counter-narrative, but the damage had been done — national media picked up the story and with Rand’s campaign on life support, the speculation was on about how much of his father’s base would go to Cruz.
The possibility of Cruz not only splitting the libertarian vote, but actually boxing Rand Paul out of his donor and activist base became team Rand’s top concern, and the campaign abruptly changed course.
In the final four months of 2015, Rand left the party-broadening, let’s-agree-to-disagree charade behind and went, as libertarian insiders affectionately refer to it, “full Paulbot”. His debate performances became much more hardline libertarian. He left the foreign policy tough talk behind and echoed his father on peace and restraint. He touted his record on the Fed and criminal justice reform.
In short, he became the candidate we wished he had been all along.
Rand’s supporters cheered the new direction, and claimed that his earlier, watered-down messaging had all been a carefully-executed scheme to win broader support before revealing his true colors.
Those of us on team Cruz saw it differently. We saw a candidate running out of money and support, changing his message to hold on to what remained of a long-neglected base — the political equivalent of taking the ugly girl to prom when the pretty one shoots you down.
None of that is to suggest that we didn’t have problems of our own. Cruz, whose record on foreign policy was so close to Rand’s that the Kentucky Senator actually accused him of “stealing” his foreign policy ideals, had sharpened his rhetoric to appeal to more hawkish Trump and Rubio supporters. His promise to “carpet bomb” ISIS until the “sand glows” created an opportunity for Rand’s team to counterpunch.
For the final two months before Iowa, Cruz libertarians were told that we were the defectors — a splinter vote that wasn’t representative of the movement as a whole. “Liberty Leaders for Cruz” was mocked, and Rand supporters insisted that Cruz had no more libertarian support than the number of people appearing in the group’s promotion video.
Their assertions were largely unsubstantiated, as few polls allowed voters to self-identify as part of the liberty movement. In place of hard data, anecdotes were thrown around by Paul and Cruz to indicate support, and occasional straw polls offered a snapshot of a competitive race for the libertarian vote.
Within our group, though, we knew better. Rand Paul activists who had stood with him for most of 2015 began to quietly approach us, indicating their support for Ted.
Slowly but surely, the movement decided to pursue actual policy change rather than lazy and uninvested ideological purity.
Iowa’s Secret Swing Vote
In the lead-up to caucus night, all the talk was centered on the Iowa evangelical vote — the dominant block of voters that had carried Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to consecutive wins in prior elections.
Forgotten — as usual — was the fate of the 26,000 caucus-goers who voted for Ron Paul in 2012.
Cruz’s campaign focused primarily on evangelicals as the larger voting bloc, but understood the significance of the libertarian vote, and made sure to include a pitch to liberty-minded Republicans at nearly every campaign stop in the final weeks. The idea of a candidate not named Paul actually working to earn the libertarian vote was a novelty in itself, and appealed to a lot of grassroots liberty folks used to being despised by both the establishment and the moral majority.
The night before the caucuses, Ron Paul appeared at a rally in Iowa with Rand, and the following morning made an appearance at a small breakfastfor state liberty activists in Des Moines. The event was not a campaign stop, and was deliberately tailored to state and local issues rather than the presidential, to allow those of us on different teams to come together again around the man who had united us in the first place. My family joined about a dozen other Cruz supporters in a room full of Rand fans excited to caucus for the younger Paul that night.
Despite disagreeing on presidential candidates, there were handshakes, hugs, and healing all around, as friends and allies realized that the next day we would be back in the same foxhole again.
Then we smiled and bumped gloves and headed back to our corners to await the opening bell.
The caucus results have been sliced and diced a hundred ways, and with Rand Paul’s subsequent exit from the presidential race, the question of where the liberty vote will go is finally being asked — a question Iowa already answered.
Ted Cruz’s win was hailed as a show of power for Iowa’s evangelicals, but the math simply doesn’t add up for that narrative.
Even if Cruz benefited from the Trump-inspired turnout bump — for which there is little evidence — that doesn’t explain his leapfrogging Trump and finishing more than 6,000 votes ahead.
What does explain such a phenomenon is the addition of Iowa’s libertarian voting bloc from 2012. While Carson, Trump, and Rand worked to bring new voters into the caucus process, it is widely accepted that Cruz’s base was primarily reliable, traditional caucus goers — people who showed up in 2012 and 2008.
Though the libertarian vote was cohesive in 2012, the evangelical vote was fractured, with Rick Santorum eeking out a miracle win while losing some votes to Michelle Bachmann, and to a lesser extent, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich.
In 2008, when evangelicals and libertarians each rallied around a single standard-bearer, Mike Huckabee won the caucuses with just over 40,000 votes, and Ron Paul managed fifth place with 11,000.
If you combine the 2012 totals for Santorum, Bachmann, and Ron Paul, and subtract the 2016 total for Rand Paul, you wind up with 53,000.
Adding Mike Huckabee’s 2008 total to Ron Paul’s 2008 total yields 52,000.
Ted Cruz’s 2016 vote total? 51,666.
Of course many other factors weigh into the caucuses, and the math of prior elections is hardly conclusive when dealing with a +50% turnout factor. Still, given that libertarians are among the most active political groups in the state, the question of the 18,000-vote gap between Rand Paul and his father is a huge one.
One final clue lends itself to the narrative of a Cruz victory among libertarians. In 2012, Ron Paul won 16 Iowa counties. Nine of those countiesvoted Cruz in 2016, and almost all of them were in the less-traditionally-conservative eastern part of the state.
Ted Cruz’s coup among libertarian Republicans is perhaps the quietest revolution of 2016, in part because it’s the one that Washington fears the most — a union of anti-establishment outsiders overcoming their differences to pursue areas of commonality.
In short, the reassembling of the Reagan coalition.