A week ago, two boys in their early 20s with a few million dollars managed to pull off a feat that eluded Karl Rove and his Crossroads GPS machine: They helped get candidates elected. They now have four members of Congress to their credit (three representatives and one senator), including one of the House’s most eccentric new members, as well as six state-level officials. Not bad for a pair of self-described “simple southerners” without a college degree between them.
John Ramsey and Preston Bates met in 2011 while working with the Ron Paul campaign. Ramsey was raised in a middle-class household and graduated from one of the poorest school districts in East Texas. But two years ago, his grandfather, a former banker, died and left him a small fortune. He and his family hadn’t been particularly politically active, until he saw the effects of Dodd-Frank on their banking business — “we obviously got hit pretty hard by that, even though we were responsible in the way we lended,” he laments. Ramsey then decided to start volunteering on the Ron Paul campaign, where he met Bates. And when that crusade sputtered out, they were frustrated.
“The Ron Paul campaign was a total flop,” says Bates. From 2008 to 2012, “it raised more than $100 million and didn’t win a single state. So we were scratching our heads, trying to figure out how to institutionalize liberty.”
After Paul’s campaign closed up shop, Bates and Ramsey started the Liberty for All Super PAC. Working with $3 million of Ramsey’s money, they ended up investing in eleven races. Out of the eleven candidates backed, ten won, one by just 200 votes.
The Liberty for All–supported victory that got the most press attention was Kerry Bentivolio’s in Michigan’s eleventh district, the seat vacated by the one and only Thaddeus McCotter. You might remember McCotter; he was the presidential candidate who won 35 votes at the Ames straw poll, wrote a bawdy TV pilot to cope with his loss, and resigned because his staffers forged most of 1,000 signatures necessary to get his name on the ballot again. (I mapped out the decline and fall of McCotter here — it’s all pretty wacky.)
Thanks to Bentivolio, Michigan’s eleventh district hasn’t lacked for color since McCotter’s downfall. The new congressman is a reindeer-farming Santa Claus impersonator dubbed “Krazy Kerry” by his primary opponent. And as if that wasn’t enough, his role in an odd low-budget independent film got him accused of being a 9/11 truther — Bentivolio said those charges are absurd and he just took the part to get on-camera experience and learn more about Michigan’s film-subsidy program. After Bentivolio won the primary, many of the district’s GOP leaders supported former state senator Nancy Cassis, a write-in candidate, but Bentivolio, a tea-party favorite, still managed to pull off a win. It’s a feat that clearly would have been much, much more difficult if Liberty for All hadn’t spent about $800,000 on his race.
“Despite his shortcomings and despite the controversy,” Bates says, “I still believe, after spending time with him and continuing to support him, in his heart of hearts I know he’s right on the issues. I know he’s going to be a stellar fireball in Congress, and I’m proud to say that we supported him.”
Where did they find a guy like Bentivolio? On the Internet, of course. For about two months in the summer of 2012, they encouraged their website visitors to suggest candidates they could support. Bentivolio’s name came up multiple times, and the rest is history — literally history, since he’s going to be casting votes in Congress soon enough.
It’s not the most conventional way to find future leaders, but Liberty for All isn’t a conventional super PAC. It has nine employees (seven full-time) but no physical headquarters to speak of. Bates is 23 going on 40, but could pass for 17. Ramsey has a deep Texan drawl and likes to preface sentences with “I’ll tell you what . . . ” He’s finishing his last nine college credits online while working full-time for the PAC. The two have made their peace with being dubbed “the Brat PAC” by Mother Jones, and neither has second thoughts about changing career plans to fit the PAC into his life.
“I’ll tell you what, this whole thing’s been a big-time learning experience, for sure,” Ramsey says.
He and Bates spend about three-quarters of their time on the road, meeting with potential donors, going to conferences, and recruiting state leaders for the group. Bates says their two biggest obstacles, at this point, are dehydration and lost iPhone chargers. He bought a hot-pink charger for Ramsey that would be harder to overlook, which seems to have helped a bit.
“You know they make the Bluetooths for your phones, which allows you to go hands-free and frees up your other hand, but that drains your battery too fast,” Ramsey says. “So I’m honestly thinking about taping my phone to my ear. You wouldn’t laugh too hard, would you?”
Ramsey explains, “I think people are so put out with the system, they’re pumped up and they’re ready to see a different way of doing politics.”
For the two of them, that means finding a chairman for every state and hunting for candidates to run in the 2014 cycle. Their first goal is winning, which might explain why they’ve been more successful than more true-blue libertarian groups. That’s also part of why they’ve chosen to work through the Republican rather the Libertarian party.
“A lot of people think it’s a scary word,” Bates says of libertarianism.
Instead of taking the third-party route, they hope to push the GOP in a more libertarian direction by supporting socially moderate, electable fiscal conservatives. Their long-term goal is “purging neoconservatives out of the Republican party” in primary elections. He says they’re also both tired of Republicans’ “medieval” take on social issues. “I think Republicans are losing so many arguments right now that they can’t afford to be losing no-brainer demographic certainties like same-sex marriage,” Bates says.
Bates and Ramsey are hoping that, as the rest of the Republican super PACs reconsider their approaches, they’ll take a page from Liberty for All’s winning playbook.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.