Republican presidential candidates are staying mum as an armed group has taken over part of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon — even those who supported the father of at least one of the group’s leaders, who had his own standoff with the government in 2014, and have called for limits on federal control over Western land.
Some of the issues involved in the standoff — constitutional rights, allegations of federal government overreach and individual liberties — have come to the fore in the GOP primary race. And as Western states are poised to play a larger role in the contest, so has the issue of property rights in a region where the federal government controls about half of the land.
But few candidates seemed willing to wade into any of these issues Sunday as the leaders of the group said they are standing up against government overreach and are prepared to remain there for “as long as it takes.” The group said it is protesting the case of two Oregon ranchers who were convicted of arson in 2012 and are scheduled to report to federal prison Monday. The ranchers were convicted on a broad terrorism charge. Many ranchers and land users in the West lease public land.
The effort is being led by at least one son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had an armed standoff with the government in 2014 over land rights. Bundy was criticized for making racially charged remarks, leading many politicians to back away from him.
Those willing to comment on the Oregon situation quickly ruled it out of bounds.
“I know a good federal compound for Bundy and his gang: a U.S. penitentiary,” tweeted John Weaver, a senior strategist for the campaign of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
But there was relative quiet from some more conservative Republican presidential candidates who had previously called for the government to release more of the land it owns. The issue has become a larger one in the GOP primary contest as states such as Colorado, Idaho and Nevada may play a bigger role in determining a nominee in a large, fractured field.
In June, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) campaigned across Nevada calling for federal land to be transferred to states in the West.
“I understand the government owns a little bit of your land out here,” Paul said in Reno. “Maybe we can rearrange that so the federal government is out of your hair.”
He also met with Bundy after a campaign stop in Mesquite, Nev., something Paul disputes the details of. Bundy told The Washington Post that he and Paul spoke for 15 to 20 minutes, mostly about land rights. Bundy said members of his family were also present.
“I did get to visit with him for several minutes in private,” Bundy said.
Paul did not address the standoff Sunday.
Legislators in Western states, in coordination with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, had campaigned unsuccessfully for the federal land to be sold. In his 2015 memoir “A Time for Truth,” Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) described how he and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) bonded over the issue before Cruz ran for the Senate.
“There is no reason for the federal government to own huge portions of any state,” Cruz recalled. “Mike pointed out to me that the value of all that federal land was roughly $14 trillion. At the time, the national debt also happened to be $14 trillion. That suggested to us an obvious and elegant solution for eliminating the debt and moving as much land as possible — other than national parks — into private hands.”
Cruz’s campaign did not comment Sunday.
In 2014, during the Bundy ranch standoff, Paul and Cruz initially argued that an important principle was at stake. Candidates Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump also have expressed sympathy or support for Bundy.
“We have seen liberty under assault from a federal government that seems hell-bent on expanding its authority over every aspect of our lives,” Cruz told a conservative radio host. “It is in that context that people are viewing this battle with the federal government. We should have a federal government protecting the liberty of the citizens, not using the jackboot of authoritarianism to come against the citizens.”
Paul, meanwhile, dismissed the “name calling” of Democrats who had tagged Bundy a “domestic terrorist” and said in a Fox News Channel interview that the land rights issue needed to be debated.
“There is a legitimate constitutional question here about whether the state should be in charge of endangered species or whether the federal government should be,” he said.
That debate effectively paused after Bundy, who had been holding regular news conferences at the standoff site, suggested that black people had been freer as slaves than as citizens in the age of the welfare state. But within a year, after big Republican gains in the midterm elections, Bundy emerged as a lobbyist for a Nevada bill to begin studying the sale of land.Meanwhile, the issue remained a way for libertarian-friendly candidates such as Paul to appeal to Western caucus states.
“I think the more private ownership, the better,” Paul told Bloomberg News last year. “Initially, when the West was being settled, it was a big revenue raiser. The last time we had no national debt was like 1835, and a big reason was the sale of land in the West.”
In October, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, another presidential candidate, announced a plan to manage public land in the West, calling for the Interior Department to be moved to the region and calling for less federal control. Bush did not respond to news of the standoff Sunday. Democratic presidential contenders also did not weigh in on the matter.
John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University, said issues of land use are nothing new in the West. After initially rallying to Bundy’s side in 2014, he said, many politicians may wait to see what happens with the situation in Oregon.
“I think these guys are going wait a minute, don’t just say anything right now,” he said.
In a comment to The Post on Sunday night, Bundy’s son Ammon Bundy declined to ask anything of the politicians who had previously weighed in on the matter.
“At this time the only statement I want to make is [that] this is not a terrorist attack or anything like that,” he said. “This is a protest against the government for the way they have abused ranchers and landowners over land rights.”