LAS VEGAS — Nevada was always supposed to be a cornerstone of Rand Paul’s path to the nomination. Now that he’s out of the race, his loyalists in this libertarian-friendly state are left with no perfect options — and some say they’re sitting out the caucuses entirely.
The lack of libertarian enthusiasm is striking after libertarians commandeered state party conventions in 2008 and 2012 and managed to essentially take over the state party in 2012. Here, Ron Paul was known to have a strong operation, which Rand inherited; caucus states, with their low turnout, emphasis on grassroots organizing, and proportional delegate awarding, favor the Pauls. But Rand’s exit from the race has upended these achievements and left diehards with no perfect option.
“I am undecided,” State Assemblywoman Shelly Shelton, who endorsed Paul, told BuzzFeed News on Monday, one day before the caucuses. “No one has a record of standing up for the rights of Americans like Dr. Paul. Perhaps if one of them chooses him as VP it will help make up my mind.”
John Moore, another state assemblyman who (sort-of) endorsed both Paul and Cruz, went in a totally different direction: He joined the Libertarian Party last month.
Though Ted Cruz has been trying to court libertarians, like he did in New Hampshire, it’s unclear to what extent it’s working here. While several former Rand Paul endorsers backed Cruz before the New Hampshire primary, the Cruz campaign hasn’t been able to project the same level of support from Nevada Paul people in the days leading up to the caucus. Plus, it’s harder to get voters to turn out for a second choice in a caucus scenario than it is in a primary situation. That said, Cruz has been endorsed by Idaho congressman Raul Labrador, who previously served as western chairman on Paul's campaign, and Cruz did announce one big get last week: Carl Bunce, an IT professional who was a senior adviser to the Paul campaign in Nevada.
Bunce told BuzzFeed News that he was trying to get others on board, but that it was slow going; loyalty to the Paul family is still high, and many say they won’t back another candidate.
“The liberty movement is a bit fractured at the moment,” Bunce said.
Indeed, according to Bunce, there are at least 18 Paul stalwarts who are actually making phone calls and organizing to caucus for Paul anyway, as he is still on the ballot here even though his campaign has been suspended.
“They’re working a little harder than they were when he was actually running,” Bunce said.
“Rand Paul is still on the ballot in Nevada and several of us still want to support his message of liberty and the Constitution,” reads a post on a Nevada for Rand Paul Facebook page. “Hope you will join us. #SuperBrochure and contact LisaMarie Johnson or Mia Collie to get set up.” (Johnson was Paul’s rural field director in Nevada.)
Another post features a text message being sent to supporters encouraging them to caucus for Paul. Johnson and Collie did not return requests for comment.
That’s how stubborn the libertarian vote is in Nevada: There is an organized grassroots effort to turn out caucus-goers for Paul, three weeks after he dropped out of the race.
“I’ve encouraged them to participate, because they can become delegates and get engaged in the county and state party,” Bunce said. “They should participate. Obviously I’m urging them to vote for Senator Cruz.”
While Cruz has clearly been to some extent tweaking his message for Nevada — he has been emphasizing land-rights issues on the stump and his campaign is up with an anti-Bureau of Land Management television ad — his people say libertarians aren’t necessarily their focus here.
“I don’t know that we fundamentally change our strategy that much more,” Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe told reporters on Saturday, the night of the South Carolina primary, when asked if libertarians were the linchpin of the campaign’s Nevada strategy. “It’s a lot different race now because of tonight and because of people getting out of the race and who’s actually invested in that state.”
“From our perspective, we put together the group of people that we always put together,” he went on, “which are conservatives and evangelicals and libertarians, we’ve been saying from his announcement speech till tonight, it will never change, it’s the same message we had a year ago, and that’s how we’re going to campaign across the country.”
Land rights aside, it isn't clear that Paul supporters here will be swayed by Cruz.
“In all the conversations I have had, the Ron Paul supporters who won the Nevada delegation in 2012 and controlled the state party from 2010 to 2013 see Cruz as a phony and are rejecting him,” said Jesse Benton, Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign manager who also ran one of the main super PACs backing Rand Paul this cycle.
The danger in sitting out this round is that the libertarian faction’s gains in the state party infrastructure could eventually be rolled back.
“It’s important for us to participate so we can retain that influence within the party,” Bunce said. “If we step out for two years, it’s a bunch of Trumpholes taking over. If we back out and don’t find someone to support and participate in the county conventions, in the state conventions, we will be left out in the cold.”