St. Cloud, Minn.
An anxious hush falls over the crowd early Friday evening at the Minnesota state Republican party convention. The hum of chatter has died down as the delegates whisper to each other in anticipation. They all know what’s next on the agenda. Ron Paul is coming.
There’s a small ripple of cheers and applause that grows exponentially louder as a small, hunched man in a dark suit hobbles toward the stage. In the crowd, suddenly, it seems a thousand “Ron Paul 2012” signs have materialized out of nowhere. The delegates climb onto their chairs, waving the signs in the air, cheering and shouting and screaming.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Ron Paul!” The convention hall is in frenzy. “President Paul! President Paul!” the chant rings out.
Paul takes to the lectern, smiling and waving. “Lots of friends of liberty in this town,” he croaks out. “Congratulations for joining the revolution!”
There’s no doubt there’s been a revolution in the Minnesota Republican party. Most observers on the ground in St. Cloud say anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the delegates are Ron Paul devotees—maybe more. So what happens when the Paulites take over a state party?
In Minnesota, for starters, they can pick one of their own to run for U.S. Senate. Kurt Bills, a first-term state representative and high school economics teacher was one of Paul’s earliest and most prominent supporters for president In Minnesota. The Paulites at the convention rewarded Bills for his fealty by delivering him the party’s endorsement for U.S. Senate, running against the popular Democrat Amy Klobuchar.
“We won a little election today, a nomination today,” Paul says. “That was very nice.”
Back on February 7, following his second-place finish in the Minnesota caucuses, Paul told a crowd of supporters that “[getting] delegates…is where we excel.” And Paul is just now beginning to see the fruits of his operation’s labor. On Saturday, the Minnesota GOP selected 13 at-large delegates to the national convention in Tampa. Twelve of them are unabashed supporters of Ron Paul, while the remaining one is Michele Bachmann—who only made it on the slate after a thirteenth pro-Paul delegate graciously (and perhaps in Machiavellian fashion) conceded to the congresswoman and former presidential candidate. The 12 Paulite at-large delegates will join 20 other delegates Paul won in each congressional district, with a total of 32 pro-Paul representatives heading from Minnesota to Tampa.
And earlier in May, Paul won 22 national delegates out of 28 at the Nevada convention (after a 17-hour fight on the floor) and 21 delegates out of 24 in Maine. Not a bad haul for a guy who has effectively dropped his bid for president.
Marianne Stebbins, Paul’s 2012 Minnesota campaign chair and one of the national delegates selected in St. Cloud, is the brains behind the Ron Paul revolution in the Minnesota GOP. “She’s brilliant,” says John Gilmore, a fervently anti-Paul Republican activist and persona non grata here in St. Cloud. “I’m unstinting in my praise of her organizational abilities. You underestimate her at your peril. She keeps her cool.”
There’s a larger purpose to the “liberty” crowd’s fight. Though they won't have a chance to get concessions by threatening to block Romney's nomination at the August convention, Stebbins and company are looking long-term at remaking the Republican party, state by state, in Paul’s image. Paulites in Minnesota, like those in Iowa, Nevada, and Kentucky, are now in control of their party’s rules and platform. They’ll be recruiting candidates for local, state, and federal offices, too.
The transformation may not be successful come general election time. While Kurt Bills may excite the Paulites, folks like Gilmore say Bills doesn’t have a chance against Amy Klobuchar. Bills defeated seasoned conservative Dan Severson and rising star Pete Hegseth for the endorsement—two candidates who might have had an outside chance at toppling Klobuchar in a good Republican year.
Gilmore says mainstream conservatives in Minnesota have no one to blame but themselves for the current state of the party. He also blasted the Romney campaign’s “pathetic” attempt to gather support for a pro-Romney slate of national delegates.
“The Romney team has no idea what it’s doing,” he says. “You can’t organize, as they did three weeks ago, and run a slate like it’s the old days. They’re just out of touch.” Stebbins, on the other hand, has been organizing the Paul folks in Minnesota for years.
“You know what the funny thing about this is these are liberty people, they don’t take orders,” Stebbins says with a smile. “So you can imagine how fun that is to organize.”
“There have been complaints that Ron Paul’s followers have somehow illegitimately hijacked the process, but that’s simply not the case,” says Ed Morrissey, a blogger at the influential website HotAir.com, a longtime Republican activist in Minnesota, and no Paul supporter. “They have done this the right way. They have followed the rules. They organized. They showed up. They followed through. And that’s democracy.”
Stebbins predicts the Paul delegates won’t cause a fracas in Tampa. “The people who were elected as national delegates are a little more refined,” she says. “I don’t think you’re going to see any disruptions at the national convention.”
Not in 2012, at least, but there’s always 2016 or 2020. And a senator from Kentucky named Rand Paul.