"Are you kidding me?"
When you ask the New Hampshire residents attending the inaugural Freedom Summit why they're here, there is a 98 percent chance this is the first thing that will come out of their mouth, followed up with a reverent recitation of the people that drew more than 700 people to a hotel conference center in Manchester on a sunny Saturday morning.
There's Ted Cruz, who Jean Ferreira, 55, was most excited to see at the event — which is organized by Americans for Prosperity, a group best known for the people who started it, the Koch brothers, and Citizens United, now synonymous with the Supreme Court decision that led to super PACs and the expansion of corporate political spending.
Ferreira was wearing a "Truth Has No Agenda" T-shirt, but she had another in her bag that read, "I Cruz With Ted." "I'm praying he'll sign it," she said.
Ray Shakir, who is 65 and can now qualify for what he deems "socialist security" was also looking forward to Cruz. Shakir voted for Newt Gingrich in 2012, but he thinks Cruz is "the strong, aggressive conservative we need today. He has the hmm, how should I put this. The cojones."
Shakir is a well-known Republican activist in New Hampshire, who hosted a fundraiser for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty in 2011. He writes letters to Conway Daily Sun frequently about “Borat Hussein O’Bummer," "O'Bummercare" and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who he calls "Osama's Dream Girl."
Rand Paul was the other person highly anticipated by the people attending the conference. Spec Bowers, a former New Hampshire state representative (and future one, he hopes), likes the junior senator from Kentucky . He voted for Ron Paul "about 30 years ago," but didn't in 2012. "I didn't think he could be elected."
The conference marks Lauren Rumpler's first day on the job as a field coordinator with Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire. Rumpler, who is 25 and also runs the YouTube channel "Objectivist Girl," likes Rand Paul and his father quite a bit. Ted Cruz, not so much. "He's all right, but I'm a libertarian," she said. "I'm more of an anarchist, really." Rumpler moved to New Hampshire from Ohio to join the Free Stater movement, another reason she supports the Paul family.
There is a far longer list of people who spoke at the Freedom Summit. There are former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and Donald Trump, all people who have expressed interest or have ended up on lists of possible 2016 presidential candidates.
There was also Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), Rep. Steve King (Iowa), Rep. Louie Gohmert (Tex.), radio host Laura Ingraham and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute — all people who either articulate conservative political ideas or can guarantee a fired up tea party audience.
But for the audience and the organizers, Cruz and Paul are the people who defined the event and make it the 2016 “cattle call” Americans for Prosperity has marked it as.
The two senators seem to have approached the weekend the same way. The day before the Freedom Summit, Paul attended a rally and fundraiser in Dover, N.H., about 40 miles away. Before his Freedom Summit address, he attended another fundraiser in Manchester with the nonprofit Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire. Paul has a long relationship with the Republican Party in New Hampshire, starting with campaign trips he took with his father. Last year, he gave $10,000 to the party. In 2011, he keynoted the Cheshire County Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner fundraiser.
Cruz will be back in New Hampshire at the end of the month to keynote a Lincoln Day Dinner. He's also scheduled to fundraise with Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire.
The tenor of both their speeches reflect the fact they've been thinking about their political futures — and the future of the Republican Party. Paul in particular explained how the party needs to expand its brand without diluting its principles. He advised the GOP "hit those who haven't been listening" by bringing civil liberties onto the party platform — stopping the war on drugs and pushing back against the National Security Agency — and reaching out the the young unemployed. "Our movement has never been about plutocrats," he said, but that is how "the other side paints us."
Cruz mentioned that Hispanics, young people and single mothers were among those most affected by the recession, and that the party should reach out to these people. Two words, he said, should be tattooed on every Republican politician. "Growth and Opportunity" — the words Republicans have also been relying on to put their own spin on policy talks about income inequality.
These two speeches were met by some of the strongest audience responses of the event. After the day was done, attendees seemed to agree with their initial enthusiastic response.
Diane Bitter, secretary of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, said she liked all the speakers were excellent, but she thought "Ted Cruz was very powerful," and Paul's was interesting because he put things in a "different slant."
Phil Boynton, the 22-year-old chair of the University of New Hampshire College Republicans said that "Ted Cruz had changed [his] mind." Candidates' views on jobs and economics will guide his 2016 presidential pick, and he now thinks Cruz will do a good job if he decided to run.
Despite the distant future frame of the event, most of the speeches at the Freedom Summit were firmly grounded in the now or the distant past. Lee invoked the Boston Tea Party, and Ayotte wondered what Daniel Webster would have thought of Lois Lerner and the Internal Revenue Service. Cruz talked about how inequality in the Gilded Age looked familiar. And despite Paul's advice that the party expand, many of the admonishments doled out by the speakers felt like well-worn tea party refrains.
When Trump brought up former Florida governor Jeb Bush's comment that much illegal immigration was "an act of love," waves of groans and boos followed. When Blackburn mentioned getting rid of the Common Core education standards — another policy Bush supports —the audience cheered almost as loudly as they did when Cruz mentioned abolishing the IRS.
Americans for Prosperity suggested that the speakers talk about taxes and fiscal issues — the organization's bread and butter. The event mostly followed this script, especially with Tax Day being only three days away, although speakers often drifted to the issue that has defined Americans for Prosperity's activity related to the 2014 midterms: Obamacare. AFP has already spent tens of millions of dollars running issue ads on the Affordable Care Act in states with close Senate elections. Jokes about Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who announced her resignation on Friday, were plentiful at the Freedom Summit, as were jokes about the National Security Agency and cellphones.
Americans for Prosperity opened their New Hampshire office in 2008, to "the fanfare of exactly nobody," according to Corey Lewandowski, who was the first state director. Five people showed up to their first event that June at the statehouse, if you count Lewandowski and the two other members of his family who attended. Tim Phillips, AFP's director, didn't even come, because his plane was delayed. "Candidly," Lewandowski says, "it was a disaster."
Three years later, however, AFP organized a presidential summit that drew all the frontrunners in the presidential race at that point. Lewandowski organized the event mostly by himself, and it ended with him sprinting home to take his pregnant wife to the hospital, where she gave birth to a son they named Reagan. When Lewandowski told this story to the audience, he was met with a sea of "awwws."
This year's event was even larger, and a year earlier in the presidential election cycle than the 2011 installment. The event's 700 general admission tickets quickly sold out, 690 to New Hampshire residents. According to Luke Hilgemann, AFP's chief operating officer, the organization considers this first Freedom Summit a test-run. If they deem it successful, they'll hold other ones prior to the 2016 presidential election in states like South Carolina and Iowa.
Another politician contemplating a presidential run was also in Manchester on Saturday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) gave an address to St. Anselm College, speaking out against the groups holding court across town.
Sanders is the sponsor of an amendment that would amend the Constitution to reverse the changes to campaign finance that resulted from Citizens United. v. the Federal Elections Commission. The New Hampshire state legislature is currently debating a resolution that would push for a similar constitutional amendment. Public Citizen, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy nonprofit, has been organizing around this issue in the state, pushing towns across New Hampshire to pass similar resolutions. Forty-eight towns have voted in favor of a campaign finance constitutional amendment, 32 towns in Republican state senate districts, according to Jonah Minkoff-Zern, who's been working on the campaign. Only one Republican state senator voted for the resolution when it was last up for a vote in the senate.
"The speculation," Minkoff-Zern says, "is that Republicans didn't support the constitutional amendment resolution because of all the money Americans for Prosperity and Citizens United have already spent in New Hampshire."
Mikoff-Zern heard locals say they planned to protest the Freedom Summit. Three showed up at the event's start according to AFP communications director Levi Russell, although they had to quickly leave after illegally parking."
"Maybe they'll be back," Russell said. "Gotta hear both sides, ya know?"