As the excitement over Rand Paul's presidential campaign announcement died down Tuesday, downtown Louisville was once again quiet, slipping back into sleepy normalcy after the afternoon's momentary media circus. The news trucks had packed up, the protesters had dispersed, and Sean Hannity was on his way back to New York. The new candidate was long gone too, trailed by a herd of reporters who will follow him like locusts for the next 18 months. Anyone left in the city was hiding from a torrential thunderstorm that had suddenly opened up over Western Kentucky.
But at one dingy pizza parlor, the party hadn't stopped yet. Undeterred by the weather or the Senator's departure, die-hard fans gathered Tuesday night for Liberty Karaoke, a singalong campaign fundraiser at which giddy young conservatives could blow off steam and celebrate Paul's entry into presidential politics. As I walk in, two dudes in red Stand With Rand shirts are yelling a Rage Against the Machine song out into the restaurant next to a screen projecting how much Paul's campaign "money bomb" has raised so far. The bartenders looked on, appearing alternately amused and like they want to run for the hills.
The crowd is relatively sparse, although organizers swear at least 50 people have come through over the course of the night. Most of them are college-aged and cluster together in groups of threes and fours eating hush puppies and perusing the song list. When I walk over to one group, they happily pull out a chair and launch into explanations about why Rand is the only candidate that speaks to "their generation." Each of their reasons vary—foreign policy, surveillance, minority outreach—but each issue gets nods all around the table.
At the bar, a fresh-faced kid tells me he recently graduated from college in Indiana and is on his way to Austin, where he hopes to get a job working for the Paul campaign. Further down the bar, one guy warns his friend against talking to a reporter: ""Here we are trying to change the country, trying to do something amazing, and a lot of it is undercover," he tells me. "And I'm sure you want to know about that."
Another activist, having just wrapped up a particularly horrifying rendition of Korn's "Freak on a Leash," asks the waitress to put on Fox News so he can watch Paul's interview with Hannity. "I was smart enough to stand behind the Senator the whole time," he informs her.
"It's about us wanting to get people together after Senator Paul launched his campaign, to socialize and hang out with each other," said Sebastian Torres, an Eastern Kentucky University student who tells me he helped organize the event. "Also to get people together to let them know that the campaign is really starting, to fundraise—and basically to see how the grassroots would react."
The brainchild of libertarian activist Matt Hurtt, Liberty Karaoke is a weekly ritual for conservatives in the DC area that raises money for politicians sympathetic to the so-called Liberty Movement. For Paul's campaign launch, the idea went national, with at least 60 karaoke events popping up in more than 35 states on Tuesday to coincide with the announcement. Paul even made his first official campaign stop at one of the sing-alongs, stopping by a bar in New Hampshire to mingle with fans. "We started reaching out to friends in different cities," Hurtt says, "and pretty soon we were just getting organic requests."
Liberty Karaoke, like Paul "money bombs," are an obvious outgrowth of the Ron Paul campaign. Leaderless, apparently spontaneous displays of grassroots activism like this were a defining feature of both of Ron Paul's campaigns, driving his relative ascension from a figure on the libertarian fringe into a national political figure.
Surprisingly, Ron Paul's name never comes up Tuesday night. In fact, despite his presence on stage for official announcement, the elder Paul—his ideas, his fans, his slogans—was remarkably absent from this son's presidential campaign launch. There were no End the Fed signs in the audience, no reflexive chanting, no guys trying to show me their Declaration of Independence back tattoos. The Senator didn't even mention his father by name, referring instead to his "parents" (the line nevertheless drew prolonged cheers from the crowd.)
Members of the Paul team take issue with the idea that Ron Paul was somehow silenced, or ignored. The old guard was there, I was told, just more difficult to distinguish among the Senator's new supporters.
"They weren't absent," said Jesse Benton, a longtime Paul advisor who ran Ron's 2012 campaign and has been tapped to run the Super PAC supporting Rand's 2016 run. "They just have a lot of company these days. I was on stage and saw and heard plenty of Liberty activists and all the old chants. But the Liberty activists have been joined by businessmen, professors, teachers, and so many other Americans who want government off their backs."
As Paul kicks off his own presidential run, it makes sense that he would want to distance himself—or at least damper—the weirder elements of the Ron Paul Revolution, and also from their higher-proof version of capital-L Libertarianism. Since being elected to the Senate in 2010, and particularly since his father retired in 2013, Paul has taken pains to mainstream his political positions, couching his ideology in language the Republican Establishment might understand and, he hopes, even like.
But Paul's more moderate positions on libertarian issues—particularly those related to military intervention and foreign aid—have drawn the ire of some of his father's supporters. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed titled " 'Stand with Rand Paul?' But where, exactly?," writer and activist Justin Raimondo, editor of the libertarian news site antiwar.com, criticized the Senator for his shifting views, particularly on foreign policy.
"I'm a libertarian and I was, as recently as a few months ago, enthusiastic about Paul," Raimondo wrote. "He started out as 'a different kind of Republican'— a characterization his campaign never tires of invoking. But Paul's response to the barrage of attacks unleashed by GOP mandarins has been to deny this difference. This strategy threatens to nullify his attempt to broaden his appeal beyond conservative voters even as he alienates his libertarian base."
With libertarians skeptical that Paul is pandering to the GOP Establishment, and Establishment types concerned that he secretly harbors his father's more hardcore positions on foreign policy, the Kentucky Senator risks entering the Republican primary without a natural base among the party's voters. "That's always been the challenge for Rand Paul," said GOP strategist Rick Wilson. "How do you take an iconoclastic guy and put him in a presidential primary that isn't always rewarding to iconoclastic guys?"
Whether Paul will able to bring together this libertarian rainbow coalition is an open question. It's clear, however, that these Rand Paul voters don't exist yet.
As he made clear in his speech Tuesday, Paul is banking on appealing to an invisible majority of Americans whose views on the size and role of government lean libertarian, even if the voters themselves don't identify as such. "This message of liberty is for all Americans," Paul told an audience in Louisville. "Americans from all walks of life. The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you're white or black, rich or poor."
Whether Paul will able to bring together this libertarian rainbow coalition is an open question. It's clear, however, that these Rand Paul voters don't exist yet. The challenge for him now—and for every Republican presidential campaign—will be to convince those people who might be swayed by the Kentucky eye doctor and his libertarian ideas, and then give them the right pitch.
There are lots of ways a campaign can accomplish that. But for now at least, some of that task falls on the wide-eyed Stand with Rand fans who have been tailing Paul for months, and who flocked to Liberty Karaoke nights across the country to celebrate his nascent White House run.
At DiOrio's Pizza and Pub in Louisville, the activists are eager—if perhaps not wholly prepared—for the challenge. "He believes in civil liberties, not just for white Americans, but for all Americans," red-headed 22-year-old Brandon Shepherd tells me fervently, pulling his chair in closer. "He's trying to change the face of the party. He's not the same Republican candidate that you've seen since the Bush administration. And the Establishment hates that."
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