Paul vs. Laughlin. (Ron Paul's campaign against Representative Greg Laughlin)

Source: Campaigns & Elections

Publication Date: June 1, 1996

How a Former Libertarian Presidential Candidate Ousted a Congressional Switcher in a GOP Primary

A Year and a half ago, a seismic electoral shift gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress and promised a revolution in the operations and objectives of American government. Only six months ago, it appeared that Revolution was keeping apace, after seven Democratic members of Congress (all but one a southerner) had swollen the GOP majorities by switching parties.

Today, the national political climate is quite different. Thrown on the defensive by the budget impasse, environmental concerns, the minimum wage issue and their own attempt to reform the Medicare system, congressional Republicans now even face the possible loss of their majorities in November. Nor can they expect more conversions in the short-term, for an iron curtain has descended upon the center aisles of Congress, drawn down by the April primary defeat of party-jumping Rep. Greg Laughlin. His execution was carried out by an improbable hit-man: former GOP congressman Ron Paul, 1988 presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party.

Nowhere Man in No Man's Land

The 14th Congressional District of Texas is a forbidding stretch of political real estate. Sprawled across 22 counties in the coastal plain, it reaches to the fringes of four metropolitan areas - Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Corpus Christi - but has no urban area larger than Victoria (pop. 60,000) to call its own. That makes communicating with this constituency via TV ads an extremely expensive enterprise, so the 14th is one of the few rural districts in the country where election campaigns are waged largely through the mail.

It is just as hard to get a handle on the district's politics. A cotton-turned-oil patch that has more recently come to rely on the petrochemical industry, the 14th precisely mirrors the ethnic divisions and voting patterns of Texas as a whole (see table). Once reliably Democratic, this area has lately begun to lean Republican, but with strong overtones of independent populism.

Just as the district has accurately reflected the state's ideological drift, so Laughlin's ideology has closely tracked that of the district. Compiling a slightly right-of-center voting record that adequately supported the Democratic leadership, the burly former prosecutor won a fourth term in 1994 with a solid, but not very comfortable, 56 percent, and appeared poised to win a coveted seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

The GOP tidal wave of that November drastically altered the political landscape, however: not only were the Republicans firmly in charge of Congress, they appeared to be impregnably entrenched in Texas as well. Popular Democratic Gov. Ann Richards (D) had been beaten, while recently installed U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) rolled to her first full term by a crushing 30-point margin.

A median Texas politician representing a microcosmic district, Laughlin decided to go with flow - provided Speaker Newt Gingrich made it worth his while. A deal was struck whereby Laughlin switched parties in return for the Ways and Means seat he had been counting on before the Democrats lost power.

The announcement of Laughlin's switch in June 1995 jolted the national Democratic establishment. Over the past dozen years - despite droves of defections - only confirmed right-wingers from conservative constituencies had deserted the party. Now a moderate from a Texas bellwether was jumping ship; a man Gingrich himself had castigated as a "Clinton clone" only nine months before. The once "solid South" suddenly seemed lost forever, and moderate congressional Democrats were looked upon with suspicion. A sea-change realignment appeared imminent.

Doc Liberty

Ron Paul has never been accused of being a typical politician, An obstetrician by trade, he preaches the gospel of free-market economics with Messianic zeal. Elected to a U.S. House seat from suburban Houston in the mid-1970s, Paul distinguished himself in the crowded lower chamber by demanding a return to the gold standard and compiling what was commonly described as the most libertarian voting record in Congress.

In many ways, Paul's crusades in the House of 20 years ago presaged the recent voter outrage over the "Imperial Congress." He authored a bill to limit congressional terms, pointedly declined junket invitations, and even refused to register for a government pension. "My wife still thinks I ought to have my head examined on that one," he chuckles today.

In 1984, Paul decided to carry his crusade for a minimalist federal government to a more visible forum, but was defeated in the U.S. Senate primary by his more celebrated colleague, Phil Gramm (R). His search for a soap-box led Paul to seek the role of Libertarian standardbearer in 1988, a contest he won despite having qualms about much of the party's radical, hands-off social agenda. As Paul recalls, "They decided, 'he's libertarian enough; he's got credibility; let's give him a shot.'"

Paul had been the first major officeholder in Texas to back Ronald Reagan's challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976, and led the Texas delegation to the national convention that year. But by 1988, he had become disillusioned by the massive deficits racked up by the Reagan Administration and was roundly critical of both the president and GOP nominee George Bush.

After pulling nearly a half-million votes for president, Paul put his political career in mothballs, but remained active in national Libertarian circles and began publishing a newsletter. After the Republican victory of 1994 had brought down four decades of Democratic hegemony on the Hill, he began to think the legislative process might yet yield a greatly reduced federal government.

"I went to Washington in the Spring of 1995 and met with the Texas delegation," Paul recounts. "A court-ordered redistricting was coming up in Texas, and I told them, 'if you guys help protect my interests in this, I can gain [Laughlin's] seat for you.' Then all of a sudden - they're giving [Laughlin] the moon to come on over."

Paul suggests the sequence may not be accidental; that party honchos - leery of his somewhat exotic philosophy and criticisms of Reagan and Bush - may have actually feared his election. Whatever their motivation, Republican leaders in Austin closed ranks behind Laughlin's primary bid, from newly-elected Gov. George W. Bush on down. Speaker Gingrich and Senators Gramm and Hutchison all came to the 14th to stump for their new-found friend; the National Republican Congressional Committee bolstered Laughlin's cause with phone banks and mailings. They also raised big bucks from other GOP members of Congress and from PACs, making an all-out effort to save their switcher.

Sinner to Saint

"I did not see a single Dallas Cowboys fan boo Deion Sanders," declared Newt Gingrich, comparing Greg Laughlin to the football star who had recently jumped teams to the delight of most Texans. "....I believe it's very important that Greg wins the primary. That sends a message to other dissatisfied folks who are tired of the liberalism of the Democrat Party that our door is open."

It was January. The Cowboys were closing in on their third Super Bowl victory in four years, but Republican prospects were dimming. Gingrich was in Southeast Texas to formally endorse his team-skipping recruit, but the locals didn't seem impressed. A letter circulating through the crowd pointedly declared the Speaker should "keep his nose out of local Republican politics." Signed by eight county GOP chairs from the district, the public communication was an early indicator that party activists - not to mention the rank-in-file - did not share the leadership's radically changed perspective on Laughlin's suitability for Congress.

The Paul campaign seized the occasion to run newspaper ads reminding voters of Gingrich's scathing assessment of Laughlin's voting record, made a mere 15 months before. A mailing from the challenger's campaign soon followed, with a reprint of a '94 NRCC broadside that linked Laughlin to illegal campaign contributions from a convicted moving company executive, hooting "Congress is the one place Greg Laughlin shouldn't be serving time."

"That was old news, a non-issue," insists Laughlin manager Todd Smith. "The Justice Department had cleared Greg of any wrongdoing in the early Fall." Nonetheless, the document did make the GOP leadership's sponsorship of Laughlin appear cynical, if not hypocritical. "The low point in politics," grumbled Paul.

Ghosts of Campaigns Past

The obstinate obstetrician was busy with his own revisionist histories, however. His campaign materials emphasized his early role as a Reagan booster, while ignoring his later efforts as a critic of the Gipper. "They also tried to make people believe he left Congress because he was tired of Washington foolishness and wanted to become a country doctor again," sneers Smith. "The truth was he had tried to move up to the Senate and, failing that, become a national operative in the Libertarian Party."

And for all his image as an impolitic maverick, Paul seem to be finessing his previously controversial stands on social issues. Whether the subject be abortion, drugs or prostitution, Paul had the same basic answer: get the federal government out of the business of telling local governments and school boards what to do. "I'm not involved in the debate over what those local representatives should do," Paul insists.

"Ron Paul had very effective mail and TV," offers Smith. "It convinced people he was simply against big government, and if responsibilities were just turned back to the states, things like drug enforcement would be more effective and even tougher. The fact is our 100 Texas Rangers simply don't have the resources to stop the border traffic of illicit drugs."

"They tried to paint me as a drug pusher," complains Paul, "but the voters weren't buying it. I had never advocated legalization and they knew it. I had condemned the federal war on drugs.... it's had just terrible consequences. The DEA used it as an excuse to bring the Army into Waco, and look what happened."

Nonetheless, Paul's social libertarianism cost him dearly among the district's religious conservatives. As is now becoming commonplace in congressional elections, the Christian Coalition distributed thousands of issue-driven "candidate report cards" at scores of churches on the Sunday before balloting in both the primary and runoff. Citing Paul's lack of support for a constitutional amendment to ban abortions and his stands for the repeal of federal morality laws, the cards could hardly have aided the libertarian's cause. Despite Paul's targeted mailings to Christian activists, the religious right appeared to split the bulk of their votes between Laughlin and the party's '94 nominee, rancher Jim Deats.

Both Paul and Laughlin had all but ignored Deats, who admitted his fundraising base had "dried up" after Laughlin switched parties. He had a $180,000 debt left hanging over him from the '94 campaign - all but a third of it owed to himself - and struggled to raise six figures for the primary. But for those seeking reliable Republican credentials, there was no other choice. The leftward-leaning Austin American-Statesman even endorsed the political novice, calling Laughlin "a junketeering poster boy for term limits."

The junket charge stemmed from the fact Laughlin had taken more trips abroad at public expense in 1995 than any other congressman, leaving him a perfect foil for Paul's message of populist reform. "That was not a fair rap," insists Smith. "As a colonel in the reserve, Greg went to hot spots like Azerbaijan and Bosnia at the Speaker's request. Those are hardly tourist meccas....[but] that was hard to explain to the voters."

Both Paul and Deats pounded away at Laughlin's voting patterns, claiming he had supported President Clinton 78 percent of the time. The charge of being too liberal rang true with this conservative primary electorate, and for good reason: According to the National Journal Laughlin had as liberal a 1995 voting record as any southern Republican in the House, save Louisiana's Jimmy Hayes, who had only switched parties in December.

Sensing danger for their new recruit, the NRCC uncharacteristically waded into the primary. Paid phone bankers in Utah called 14th District voters with attacks centered on Deats' debt and Paul's social libertarianism, causing a significant uproar.

"The NRCC did that without our knowledge," insists Smith. "We asked them to stop, and they did."

The Finals

Primary Day, March 12, brought a historic turnout to the GOP ballot: for the first time in Texas history, more people voted as Republicans than Democrats. More than 34,000 cast ballots in the GOP's 14th district battle, exceeding official expectations by 70 percent.

The floodtide at the polls was thought to be a good omen for Laughlin, as it suggested the presence of many Democratic crossovers and guaranteed a muted voice for the hard-right "party faithful." But the actual returns provided a frosty reception for the incumbent in his new party:

Laughlin 14,721 42 percent 
Paul 11,080 32 percent 
Deats 8,453 24 percent 

Privately expecting to clear the 50 percent bar for outright Victory, many Laughlin backers seemed shaken by the results. History was now against them: none of the three congressional incumbents forced into primary runoffs during the Angry '90s had managed to prevail.

The picture immediately turned even more bleak, as Deats endorsed Paul for the runoff. With few races left on the ballot, second-primary turnout would be small, dominated by very conservative, doctrinaire activists.

With four weeks to go until the runoff, the establishment locked arms behind the incumbent: the NRCC and NFIB flooded the district with pro-Laughlin mail. The NRA followed suit, and added an independent expenditure broadcast advertising for good measure. Gov. Bush, Hutchison, and even ex-U.S. attorney general Ed Meese all hit the hustings for the recent convert, the latter to castigate Paul as a Judas to the sainted Reagan.

"Bringing Meese in was a bit much," opines Houston Chronicle political reporter Clay Robison. "It made it look as if the establishment was really desperate to push Laughlin over. People began to resent all these outsiders coming in, telling them how to vote."

With little more than two weeks to go, Laughlin played the John Wayne card, usually a strong suit in Texas. A TV ad waved his tour of duty in the Gulf War, pointed out Paul's opposition to the enterprise, and claimed the Air Force veteran-turned-doctor "refused to support our troops." (See sidebar on page 31.)

Mgr./Direct Mail:  Mark Elam Todd Smith 
Strategy/General: Tony Payton NONE
Media: Jay Bryant Strategy Grp Sandler-Innocenzi
Polling:  Tom Lizardo Tarrance Group
Est. Spending $1,050,000(*) $750,000
Votes  11,236 (54%) 9,492 (46%)

* Includes almost $300,000 in direct-mail fundraising expenses, much of its outside of the district. 

"That was completely outrageous," fumes Paul manager Mark Elam. "Ron fully supported our effort once the war was underway."

"As for that two-week, so-called tour of duty of his," Paul himself scoffs, "I don't want to call it a publicity stunt, but I don't know what else you'd call it.... The Bushes got on me about [the war] too. They called me an 'isolationist,' but I'm really a non-interventionist. I don't want our troops in Bosnia or under U.N. command.... People around here don't think about it much, but it really wasn't in their interest to go off and fight for lower oil prices."

Paul also seemed to be on the wrong side of the debate over NAFTA, widely regarded in Texas as a boon to the state economy. "That may be changing," he suggests. "Mexico dumped their cattle on us, and now the U.S. government is giving them $100 million in aid to rebuild their herds." Nonetheless, the cattleman's association sponsored pro-Laughlin mailings.

A Winning Hand

Despite the deck stacked against him, Paul had a few aces up his sleeve. He too had allies, even more unlikely bedfellows than accompanied Laughlin. Baseball fireballer Nolan Ryan - a Refugio native and longtime ace for the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers - broke with his old boss, Gov. Bush (once the Rangers' managing partner) to become Paul's campaign chair. Furious at Laughlin's switch, the Teamsters launched a biting broadcast campaign against the congressman, and the AFL-CIO made extensive use of phone banks and the mail to drive home the message Laughlin could not be trusted.

An even more important asset to Paul was his national libertarian network, which enabled him to raise well over $600,000 in mail solicitations from 13,000 donors. Although the effort cost almost half that amount, Paul was able to match the incumbent dollar-for-dollar in actual campaign expenditures.

Paul spent those funds wisely: his paid operation was sparse compared to Laughlin's, and his communications were highly targeted. Broadcast TV was purchased only in Victoria, except for slots on the Rush Limbaugh Show in Houston and Corpus Christi. Cable systems in the fringe suburban areas saw significant buys, as did small town radio and newspapers. A substantial grassroots organization of more than 500 volunteers was utilized in phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.

Both campaign managers in this race are direct mail consultants by trade, and by no quirk of fate: mail is nearly as dominant a campaign component here as it is in suburban Los Angeles. Paul dropped 10 different pieces, including general mailers to the house list of 25,000 frequent GOP primary voters and carefully tailored missives to such lists as doctors, seniors, and Deats supporters (provided by the defeated rival).

An artful combination of the direct mail and TV campaigns saw the mailing of 25,000 campaign videos to the house list. A 12-minute production of veteran political consultant Jay Bryant, the tape recounted Paul's life and touted his record as "The Taxpayers' Best Friend." The moniker was bestowed on Paul by an anti-tax group while he was in office, and it's easy to see why:

"Through ten years in Congress, he never voted to spend a nickel," hoots Laughlin manager Todd Smith, seemingly convinced the newly anointed GOP nominee is an escapee from Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not Museum. "Paul's idea of a federal government is six nuclear-armed submarines. Period."

Tax Hit

Is the '96 electorate really looking for such a radical dismemberment of the federal government, or were other forces responsible for Paul's 54-percent triumph on election day?

"Every piece of material we put out hit on taxes," emphasizes Paul, and Smith grudgingly agrees that may have been the key. "Being linked to Clinton and higher taxes was the toughest thing we had to deal with."

Small wonder. Only 20,000 cast ballots in the runoff - about seven percent of all registered voters. In a Republican primary in a rural southern constituency, that translates into an electorate barely tolerant of government whatsoever. Unlike Laughlin, these people were not middling representatives of Texas or the 14th District. A better question than why he lost is: why was Greg Laughlin in this primary at all?

"These voters were just used to voting against Laughlin," contends reporter Robison. "Someone with a more conservative voting record would have had a better shot at holding on."

Even GOP consultant Smith is moved to concede: "If Greg Laughlin were still a Democrat, he'd be re-elected easily this year."

Moral: If you can beat 'em, don't join 'em.

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