Mainstream Republicans afraid Ron Paul’s steady accumulation of delegates will cause chaos at their national convention in Tampa just received a terrifying preview of what a worst-case scenario might look like.
In Oklahoma on Saturday, Paul supporters and Romney supporters reportedly came to blows as the Paul side fell short of electing their slate of delegates amid cries of foul play, including the use of a voice vote instead of a more painstaking roll call to decide the outcome. Speaking at the event, Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and the state’s own governor, Mary Fallin, drew jeers.
At the state convention in Arizona, also this weekend, the presumptive nominee’s son, Josh Romney, was booed off the stage by Paul supporters, some of whom derided his father as “the white Obama.”
At this point it’s way too late to keep Paul from having a sizable presence at the Republican National Convention, and likely control of enough state delegations to put his name up for a floor vote against Romney. But it’s still an open question just what these delegates and other Paul activists planning events for the national convention will do when they actually get there.
Paul himself has bristled at the suggestion that a convention with a substantial presence of supporters would be a chaotic affair, even while he has endorsed their continued efforts to score delegates.
“It certainly isn’t for the reason of disrupting the convention,” Paul told CNN last week. He said he was following his current strategy because “moving an agenda is very important and to do that we need to maximize the number of delegates that we have.”
A spokesman for the Paul campaign did not return requests for comment, but interviews with pro-Paul activists revealed a number of differing goals, including a total win-or-go-home effort to make Paul the nominee and long-term efforts to make sure the movement is poised for stronger runs in 2016 and beyond.
Kelly Nguyen, 27, a web designer in Georgia, is attending next week’s state convention as a Paul delegate. Nguyen is part of an organized effort by grassroots supporters to claim delegates and national committee members for Paul. High on their list is of goals is ensuring that friendly members are in positions in both the state GOP and RNC to make sure establishment Republicans can’t change the nominating process to prevent similar delegate takeovers in the future.
“That is the long-term goal,” Nguyen told TPM. “They deal with a lot of the rules that the national Republican Party puts forward. It would be really great if we can get national committee people to make sure the rules favor the grassroots.”
But Nguyen doesn’t believe the Republican convention will be a quiet affair.
“I don’t think it’s going to be smooth,” Nguyen said. “But I think that because of our numbers and because of the writing on the wall, they’re going to have to by default recognize that there are Ron Paul supporters, there are new ideas, there are new bodies coming into the Republican Party.”
Kurt Wallace, a spokesman for the independent grassroots site DailyPaul, which has helped organize supporters for state conventions throughout the race, insisted that the Paul delegates were not part of any larger plan beyond the immediate primary race.
“The goal is to win,” Wallace said. “I don’t think they’re thinking ‘Let’s get in there and disrupt the process and be a thorn in the side of the Republican Party.’ It really is a pure intention to get the man that they support elected.”
Josh Tolley is helping to organize a concert and rally in Tampa for convention weekend, Liberty Festival, that he hopes will attract over 100,000 Paul supporters in order to help pressure Republicans to recognize the libertarian wing of the party. While it may be too late to stop Romney, he suggested a strong presence at the convention would be a “warning shot across the bow” to the next election’s candidates that they’ll need to acknowledge Paul supporters’ demands.
“Right now a lot of Ron Paul supporters are hoping Rand Paul gets to run in 2016, but what they’re not realizing is the establishment is grooming a new crop, whether it’s Paul Ryan, Chris Christie or Marco Rubio,” he said. “If Romney wins it only helps the Ron Paul movement in that it adds fuel to the fire. People will say, ‘Here we go with another four years of not having liberty in the platform.’”
Paul and Romney are publicly friendly, and their relationship could help sand the edges of what might otherwise be a raucous and contentious floor fight. But Tolley scoffed at the notion Paul could tamp things down by embracing Romney once activists actually arrive. He predicts a mass exodus from the GOP to third-party candidate Gary Johnson if supporters feel they don’t have a viable option.
Others said they would, in fact, look to Paul himself for guidance as to how to behave. Adam Kokesh, an Iraq veteran and spokesman for grassroots group Vets for Ron Paul, is planning a march in Tampa and is hoping to pair delegates with veteran Paul activists as their guests to get them on the convention floor. But he said no one was certain yet what the goal for that weekend will be.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said. “You’ll have to ask the candidate himself. We’re there to support Paul in whatever he wants to do.”
No one is sure exactly how many delegates Paul has accumulated — the New York Times puts him at 104, but he may have far more as supporters take over defeated candidates’ slates and even elect delegates bound to support Romney on the ballot. The only thing certain at this point is that the movement is growing more and more difficult to contain.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.