TAMPA, Fla.—Their numbers may be relatively small this week, but little seems to dampen the enthusiasm of retiring Rep. Ron Paul’s fervent supporters.
In his pinstripe suit and tie, John Laurie—a voting delegate from Arizona, fulltime student and firefighter—stood out from the other Paul backers protesting in downtown Tampa on Monday. To Laurie, the Romney campaign is working too hard to marginalize delegates aligned with Paul, many of whom have integrated themselves into state and local Republican Party organizations across the country.
“Republican leaders see the change coming, and they don’t know it yet—but we are the future,” says Laurie.
Controversy over a potential rule change pushed by the Romney campaign led Monday to speculation over a convention floor fight. The trouble began late last week when the Romney campaign attempted to alter the delegate selection rules for future national conventions.
The rule change would have tied future delegates to the result of their state’s primary or caucus, effectively making it more difficult for insurgent candidates like Paul to accumulate delegates at state and county party conventions.
“It clearly shows that they are afraid they’re losing their grasp, their stranglehold, on what they perceive to be their party,” says Laurie.
While he’s realistic about the impact Paul and his backers can have this week in Tampa, it doesn’t make Laurie any less angry about what he sees as the mistreatment of the group at the hands of convention organizers and the Romney campaign.
Self-styled, grassroots libertarian Republicans like Laurie have proven a nuisance for party leaders. And while party officials came to an agreement late Monday night on the delegate rules aimed at avoiding any disruption on the convention floor, the Romney campaign is still prepping for the possibility that some Paul-aligned delegates attempt to push the issue.
It’s not likely to be much more than a temporary distraction in Tampa, but it does underscore an ongoing challenge for the GOP—bringing what looks like an increasingly large and vocal contingent of libertarian-minded Republicans into the party fold.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who’s scheduled to speak before the full convention on Wednesday, said in an interview with Fox News that the GOP needs to embrace his father’s supporters, making them “an integral part of the party.” The younger Paul said he intends to carry that message to the convention stage during his speech, arguing that making room for “liberty-minded” conservatives “is the way we might start winning races where we’re not winning races.”
Josiah Schmidt, the former communications director for Gary Johnson’s 2012 presidential effort, is one of three strategists who recently formed a political consulting firm aimed entirely at libertarian-leaning Republicans. The firm’s principles have a presence on the ground this week in Tampa.
“This is really a unique breed of candidate that has come up within the past few years and I think we’ve tapped into a market that has been ignored for a long time,” Schmidt said in a recent interview with C&E. He founded Liberty Torch Consulting along with former Rand Paul campaign manager David Adams and Ron Paul’s 2008 Finance Director Jonathan Bydlak.
“I think it’s going to continue to grow and I think part of it is because a lot of the activists who got involved in 2008 are now Republican county chairs or they are delegates to the convention,” Schmidt said. “These folks have really integrated themselves into the party, and that goes a long way.”
Even after Tuesday’s floor proceedings, Paul’s outspoken supporters plan to remain airing their grievances on the streets of Tampa through the end of convention week. Their persistence is a thorn, however small, in the side of the RNC and efforts to promote party unity—a reminder of the ideological rift among Republicans.
“Our forefathers were grassroots people, and the idea that you can just ignore somebody or shut them out because they haven’t been a part of the party for 50-plus years is odd to me,” says Ryan Dickerson, a 27-year-old teacher and Paul backer. “When you ignore us, treat us like crap and talk down about the candidate we support, it kind of makes me feel disenfranchised.”
Additional reporting by Shane D’Aprile