The Return of the Liberty Republican?

In 2014, Robert Draper wrote a New York Times article where he posed the question, “has the ‘libertarian moment’ finally arrived?” That year, libertarians seemed like they were on the verge of making significant political gains, specifically within the Republican Party. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the son of movement icon Ron Paul, won back-to-back straw polls at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2013 and 2014. The Tea Party Movement, although not at its peak four years prior, was still alive and kicking, as evidenced by the upset defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a libertarian-leaning economics professor by the name of Dave Brat (both R-VA). Furthermore, young Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI), the founder of the House Liberty Caucus, was a rising star in the party, and popular with hardcore liberty folk and more mainstream Tea Party conservatives alike.

It appeared that the 2016 Election was a prime opportunity for the Republicans to pursue a more libertarian agenda. As a young so-called “liberty Republican” myself, I certainly had a reason to be optimistic. In debates with both my progressive and more mainstream conservative friends, I would cite study after study about younger voters trending toward smaller government in all areas, including in economics, people’s personal lives, and foreign affairs. In April 2015, then-Senator Paul launched his own Presidential bid, and unlike his father’s quixotic runs in 2008 and 2012, it looked like he actually had a shot. People of my ilk were ecstatic. I was even selected to be the campus coordinator for Sen. Paul’s Presidential election campaign at Hofstra University. Not only was the liberty movement a force in Congress, it potentially was about to take the White House by storm.

Then came the fateful day that thwarted many a liberty Republican’s dreams – June 16, 2015, the day now-President Donald Trump threw his hat into the ring. Ever since then, he was all the media spoke about. Rand Paul’s candidacy became an afterthought. Aside from passionate liberty activists like myself, everyone forgot that he was even in the race. In the primary debates, he sat off to the side, lucky to even get a word in, while Trump commanded attention in the middle. While candidate Donald Trump advocated for substantially more authoritarian policies than Senator Paul, he did steal much of the rookie Senator’s would-be base, people for lack of better terms “pissed off” with the status quo of the Washington “swamp.” Although Rand lingered around for a few months, his bid ended with a whimper after receiving a measly 4.5% of the vote in the Iowa Caucus.

The Republican Party has by now fully coalesced around Trump, as a party always does when one of their own is elected President. By late 2016, the once-influential liberty faction of the GOP was greatly diminished. I saw it first hand when libertarian conservative activist Rebekah Bydlak, whose campaign I volunteered on, came in a distant fourth in a Republican Primary race for an open Congressional seat in Florida, despite raising the second most money and touting endorsements from both Ron Paul and Justin Amash. By contrast, the winner of that very primary was Matt Gaetz, a “Trumpy” nationalist who predictably has become one of the President’s biggest cheerleaders in Congress. To add insult to injury, the once-growing Liberty Caucus fractured in the early Trump years. While most members like Rand Paul became unapologetic Trump-backers, Congressman Amash took up the mantle of opposing the President from the right. Refusing to betray any principles, the one-time Republican star left the party, voted to impeach Trump, and now sits as a member of the big “L” Libertarian Party.

Trump’s “law and order” stance, enforcing our nation’s immigration policy and continuing the Obama administration’s travel ban from countries of concern; use of executive orders and big government (for a Republican at least); and big-spending tendencies has sure put him at odds with many libertarian purists like Amash. But aside from this group, what happened to the rest of the liberty Republicans, those who followed Senator Paul to Trump’s side? It appears that they’re making a comeback.

For a month, I worked in New Hampshire as a contracted Election Coordinator for Make Liberty Win PAC, the 501(c)(4) affiliate of the libertarian-conservative student organization Young Americans for Liberty who specializes in campaigning for liberty Republicans on the state level. Of the 38 New Hampshire State House candidates[1] the PAC endorsed this year, 34 (89%) won their primary elections – the vast majority of them in safe Republican seats where they are heavy favorites in November. Although it does not surprise me one bit that low-tax pro-gun New Hampshire would favor this kind of Republicans, what I found interesting was how most of them campaigned on their allegiance to the President. While canvassing, I would routinely pass out literature correctly advertising a good portion of my candidates as being “100% Pro-Trump.” At first, it seemed to me like it was a paradox, especially given how people like Rep. Amash have scorned the Commander in Chief. How could someone run as a libertarian and a staunch Trump supporter at the same time?

When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. Yes, there are some obvious reservations a pure libertarian will have about Trump, but at the end of the day, he does far more to advance the cause of small government than any Democrat would ever. He has cut taxes, the chief issue for the liberty folk in New Hampshire. Plus, Trump’s stances on foreign policy and criminal justice reform have been significantly more libertarian than any previous president, including Obama.

This formula of running as both a “Trumper” and a liberty candidate worked for Byron Donalds and Kat Cammack who won contested Republican House Primaries in Florida open seats last month, succeeding where Rebekah Bydlak failed. Both candidates were endorsed by Senator Paul and the Republican Liberty Caucus but also unabashedly and vocally support Trump. By contrast, Rebekah Bydlak tried to avoid mentioning the now-President when she ran four years ago and instead doubled down on her libertarian roots. Donalds, who is African American, and Cammack, a 32-year-old woman, will add more diversity to the GOP House Caucus. Both won in deep-red seats and both are virtually assured of winning the General Election. In 2020, there is absolutely a path for a liberty candidate to win an election as a Republican, the path apparently has to lead through Trump.

In the 2011 sports drama Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s character uttered the words “adapt or die” when he was challenged on his unorthodox new approach to baseball.  This is exactly what libertarian-leaning Republicans have figured out in the age of Trump. The President changed the way the game of politics is played, particularly on the right. It is indisputable that, at least for now, the Republican Party is fully the party of Trump. And while Congressman Amash has chosen to walk away, other liberty-minded individuals chose to adapt without having to sacrifice many of their principles – and this is why their movement refuses to die.

[1] One successful New Hampshire House candidate was endorsed by Make Liberty Win in the middle of the cycle. She is not listed on the organization’s website.