MANCHESTER, N.H. – Not long after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) ended his campaign for president, a group of libertarians gathered at the downtown Radisson to share good news.
“This is a great day in the history of human freedom,” said Jason Sorens, a youthful-looking lecturer from Dartmouth. “We are firing the starting gun on the mass migration of freedom-lovers to New Hampshire.”
Fifteen years earlier, Sorens wrote an essay that called for a Free State Project – at least 20,000 like-minded libertarians relocating to one place, and turning it into a haven. On the way to the goal, they’d elected legislators, made documentaries, founded an annual outdoor festival, and even placed Bitcoin machines in gas stations. What did the failed campaign of America’s most prominent libertarian-leaning politician mean?
“Good riddance to Rand Paul,” said Keene activist and radio host Ian Freeman. “Instead of spending all this time and money on him, libertarians can spend their time and money on something important.”
New Hampshire, always hospitable to people who want the government to leave them alone, has a libertarian bloc that only a few presidential candidates have bothered to court. Paul’s unexpectedly early exit kicked off an aggressive new round of courting by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), led by state co-chairman and conservative legislator Bill O’Brien. They’d been unable to peel libertarian endorsers away from the Kentuckian, or replace their affection for his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul.
“Part of the reason we are more competitive in New Hampshire than the typical conservative is, we’ve got enough support on the libertarian side that it backfills,” Cruz told reporters this week. “Iowa you’ve got more evangelicals, New Hampshire you’ve got more libertarians.”
In Iowa, Cruz succeeded beyond expectation in poaching evangelical Iowa leaders and voters who’d once backed Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Bringing home libertarian voters in New Hampshire is trickier, less akin to herding cats than to herding gas molecules.
“I sort of resent the idea of Cruz claiming he can get the liberty vote,” Ron Paul told The Washington Post this week. “I think he’s a real libertarian fake.”
On Thursday, O’Brien said he’d called 31 liberty-minded legislators, and while none had officially moved to Cruz yet, they were coming.
“I know we’ve turned some of them, it’s a matter of when they want to announce them,” he said. “Some have already come over and said we’re going to endorse the senator. It’s a matter of getting people to move off of their regret and their grief and onto the next opportunity. Some are already there and some are coming on. There are a few who are so regretful they’ve just said, I’m going to sit it out. [But] it’s not like I’m trying to get them to endorse Jeb Bush or something. It’s somebody fairly close to who they are.”
Still, several legislators who’d backed Paul told The Post that they resented the idea that they could flip so easily. Aaron Day, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, said he’d spent much of Wednesday running interference.
“Some Rand people are saying: You know what? He’s on the ballot. I’ll vote for him,” said Day as Free Staters milled around him, exchanging silver drink tokens for liberty-themed cocktails. “And some people I’m talking to are saying, screw it, I want to burn down the establishment and vote for Trump. He’s antithetical to the liberty movement, but that’s what they feel.”
Within hours of Paul quitting the race, O’Brien was boasting of dozens of phone calls to the senator’s key endorsers. Politico was dubbing Cruz a “born-again libertarian.”
But the “liberty movement” had never fallen for a candidate like it fell for Ron Paul. On Wednesday night, at a celebration held at a speakeasy – complete with a false door and a password – members of the Free State Project credited the elder Paul with building the movement while explaining that no who lacked his purity could lead it.
“The project was really struggling until 2007, but then you had the whole presidential primary, and the Ron Paul phenomenon,” said Sorens. “There are all these Ron Paul kids coming to New Hampshire, they’re all waving signs, they’re walking precincts. A lot of those people actually stayed in New Hampshire.”
They never shed their idealism, either – which proved problematic for Rand Paul. Cruz had made serious pitches to New Hampshire libertarians, cutting early into potential support for Paul. But there was a smaller libertarian vote to start with. New Hampshire’s most devoted libertarians had cooled on both candidates when they signed onto a letter by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), informing Iran that any nuclear arms deal could be shredded by the Senate.
“I keep hearing that people can’t deal with Cruz on foreign policy and criminal justice reform,” said Brinck Slattery, a former Ron Paul supporter who managed the libertarian presidential bid of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. “None of the other candidates are really serious about those issues.”
Sorens put it more succinctly: “Cruz shivved us on criminal justice reform, and he wants to carpet-bomb the Middle East.”
The “carpet-bombing” quote, new since the fight against the Islamic State group, was better-known than Cruz’s criminal justice views. In April, when he had entered the race but Paul had not, Cruz told Bloomberg News that he saw eye to eye with libertarian reformers.
“I don't think it makes sense for so many young people, particularly young African-Americans, to serve long prison sentences for non-violent crime,” he said.
Later in the year, as Paul faded and conservative concerns grew about the Black Lives Matter movement’s criticism of police, Cruz talked more about the threat of violent crime and less about reform.
“Every one of us who votes to release violent criminals from prison prior to the expiration of their sentence can fully expect to be held accountable by our constituents,” Cruz said ominously at the October 2015 mark-up of a reform bill.
Moments like that had kept some libertarians on the fence about Cruz, for all his efforts to pull them over. On the trail on Thursday, he told one audience of his teenage years in Constitutional Corroborators, a program set up by a libertarian-minded energy executive to turn young people into experts on the American system.
“We’d read free market economics – Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises – then we would memorize the Constitution,” Cruz said.
Cruz had name-dropped some of the economists most important to libertarians. But not every Constitutional Corroborator thought like Cruz. Sorens, as a teenager in Houston, had joined the same group.
“I think we got different lessons out of it,” he said.
Katie Zezima contributed reporting from Weare, N.H.