MANCHESTER, N.H. — “Are you kidding me?”
When you ask the New Hampshire residents attending the inaugural Freedom Summit why they’re here, there’s a very good chance this is their first reaction, followed by a reverent recitation of the names that drew more than 700 people to a hotel conference center Saturday morning.
There’s Ted Cruz, whom Jean Ferreira, 55, was most excited to see at the event organized by Americans for Prosperity and Citizens United. Ferreira is wearing a “Truth Has No Agenda” T-shirt but has another in her bag that says “I Cruz With Ted.” “I’m praying he’ll sign it,” she said.
And there’s Rand Paul. When he started speaking, it was clear many in the audience had been waiting for this all morning.
But also appearing were former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Donald Trump, all of whom have expressed interest or have ended up on lists of possible 2016 Republican presidential candidates.
But for the audience and the organizers, Cruz and Paul defined the event that Americans for Prosperity called the 2016 “cattle call.” The two senators seem to have approached the weekend the same way.
The day before, Paul (Ky.) attended a rally and fundraiser in Dover, about 40 miles away. He attended another fundraiser in Manchester on Saturday 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, former Texas congressman Ron Paul. Last year, he gave $10,000 to the state party. In 2011, he was the keynote speaker at the Cheshire County Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner fundraiser.
Cruz (Tex.) 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.
Their speeches were met by some of the strongest audience responses of the day.
Paul said the party needs to expand its brand without diluting its principles. He advised the GOP to “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 to the young unemployed. “Our movement has never been about plutocrats,” he said, but that is how “the other side paints us.”
Cruz said that Hispanics, young people and single mothers were among those most affected by the recession, and that the party should reach out to them. Two words, he said, should be tattooed on every Republican politician: “growth and opportunity.” They are words Republicans have also been relying on to put their spin on policy talks about income inequality.
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 bashed 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 it did when Cruz mentioned abolishing the Internal Revenue Service.
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 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. The group has spent tens of millions of dollars running issue ads on the Affordable Care Act in states with close Senate elections. Jokes about Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who announced her resignation last week from the Department of Heath and Human Services, were plentiful at the Freedom Summit, as were jokes about the NSA and cellphones.
Americans for Prosperity opened its New Hampshire office in 2008, to “the fanfare of exactly nobody,” according to Corey Lewandowski, the first state director. Five people showed up at its first event that June at the statehouse, if you count Lewandowski and the two members of his family who attended. Tim Phillips, the group’s national director, didn’t even come, because his plane was delayed. “Candidly,” Lewandowski says, “it was a disaster.”
But three years later, Americans for Prosperity organized a presidential summit that drew all the front-runners in the GOP 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 Saturday, it 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, Americans for Prosperity’s chief operating officer, organizers consider this first Freedom Summit a test run. If they deem it successful, they’ll hold others before the 2016 presidential election in states such as South Carolina and Iowa.
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 thought that all the speakers were excellent, but that “Ted Cruz was very powerful,” and Rand Paul 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.” The candidates’ views on jobs and economics will guide his 2016 presidential pick, and he now thinks Cruz will do a good job if he decides to run.