Organizer Marianne Stebbins has helped turn Ron Paul’s unruly supporters into a force in the state Republican Party
Four years ago, as Marianne Stebbins recalls it, she couldn’t get Republican Party officials to return her phone calls. The state coordinator for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign wanted to know whether the Texas congressman would be granted a speaking slot at the party’s convention in Rochester. Only after sending a certified letter to then-state GOP Chairman Ron Carey did Stebbins receive a response: Paul would not be permitted to address the gathering.
That didn’t dissuade Paul from showing up anyway. The libertarian challenger addressed roughly 400 supporters in a park adjacent to the Mayo Civic Center, garnering unwanted headlines about divisions within the GOP.
“It was kind of antagonistic,” Stebbins recalled of her relationship with the state party in 2008. “We weren’t the best of friends.”
But Carey’s recollection of events is slightly different. He says Paul was perfectly welcome to address the convention, but under one condition: that he endorse presumptive presidential nominee John McCain.
“There is an amazing amount of revisionist history by the Paul forces to try and whip their team up into a frenzy,” Carey said. “Unfortunately, the story is much better than the truth. … I still stand by that decision as the right decision. I wish Dr. Paul would have gotten behind John McCain. Maybe we would have had a different outcome.”
Four years later, Carey is long gone as state GOP chairman. But Stebbins and the unruly Paul supporters that she’s charged with organizing are a much more cohesive force heading into this weekend’s state GOP convention in St. Cloud. They have spent the intervening four years training Paul’s supporters — many of whom are younger, and not traditional GOP activists — in the finer points of the arcane caucus system. By most estimates they have commandeered roughly half of the delegate slots for the state convention, where they will endorse a GOP candidate to run against U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
In addition, Paul supporters have already secured 20 of the 24 delegate slots for the Republican National Convention that were up for grabs at the state’s eight congressional district conventions. Another 13 national delegates will be chosen during this weekend’s convention. The Paul supporters are expected to unify behind a slate of candidates for those slots — although Stebbins declines to acknowledge any such coordinated plan. “I don’t want to get into all that,” she said.
That means 33 of the state’s 40 delegates to the national convention — where Mitt Romney is universally expected to claim the GOP nomination — could very well end up being Paul backers. (Three delegate slots are automatically reserved for top party officials.)
This impressive show of organizing muscle has earned Stebbins admirers — even among those who are wary of the Paul supporters. “Give her credit. She’s been tireless for six years here working on behalf of Ron Paul,” Carey said. “You tip your hat to your fellow comrades who work the process very hard and diligently.”
John Gilmore, a blogger and GOP activist in the 4th Congressional District, has consistently ridiculed Paul’s supporters for what he sees as cult-like behavior and intolerance. “Here’s the bottom line: They themselves say they aren’t Republicans,” Gilmore said. “I take them at their word.”
But even he professes admiration for Stebbins’ ability to harness the Paul supporters into a formidable grass-roots force. “I have enormous respect for her organizing capabilities,” Gilmore said. “She’s single-minded in her devotion to Ron Paul. … They’re taking over grass-roots Republican politics. I think it’s going to be a romp for the Ron Paul people.”
The Paul supporters are well positioned to play a decisive role in the three-way contest to take on Klobuchar. State Rep. Kurt Bills is expected to attract the vast majority of their support. That’s because he was an early backer of the Texas congressman and received Paul’s personal endorsement for the U.S. Senate seat.
The other two principal challengers — former state Rep. Dan Severson and U.S. Army veteran Pete Hegseth — will have to overcome the might of the Paul backers. Severson has the advantage of having been in the race the longest, securing many supporters before his two rivals entered the race. Hegseth has attracted big-name supporters — including Texas Gov. Rick Perry — from across the country. William Kristol, editor of conservative newsmagazine The Weekly Standard, hosted a fundraiser for him earlier this month. A new super PAC set up to help Republicans win control of the Senate, Reclaiming Freedom, has promised to spend money on Hegseth’s behalf if he wins the nomination.
But Stebbins dismisses the significance of support from outside the ranks of the GOP activists who will decide the endorsement contest. “Hegseth basically has the kingmakers behind him,” Stebbins said. “But Minnesotans are so independent. They don’t necessarily like that whole kingmaker game.”
National convention strategy
More difficult to determine is how Paul’s supporters intend to use the legions of national delegate slots they are accumulating. Minnesota isn’t the only state where they have been extremely successful in securing slots. Last weekend, Paul’s supporters garnered a majority of delegate posts in both Maine and Nevada.
So what will all these Paul delegates be seeking? For starters, they will want a prominent speaking slot for him at the convention. Beyond that, Stebbins is vague about what concessions they might seek. “Romney has to go up against Obama,” she said. “The margins aren’t that great. It could go either way. They need the Ron Paul people, and they need to bring them in and let them be heard and make them feel like they’re a part of the process and a part of the party.”
But will these Paul delegates support Romney if he indeed is the nominee? “I don’t know. That’s their individual choice,” Stebbins said. “This is very much a movement of individuals. People are always surprised that we’re organized, because it is truly herding cats. The one thing I’ve found is that you can’t just tell them what to do. That adds a level of intrigue.”
An early indicator of how powerful the Paul faction will be could come right at the outset of the state convention on Friday. The co-chairs of the gathering are state Reps. Kurt Daudt of Crown and Sarah Anderson of Plymouth. But there’s widespread speculation that the Paul supporters will seek to oust Daudt — who is backing Hegseth in the U.S. Senate contest — from his convention post and appoint one of their allies. (Anderson is backing Bills.)
Stebbins acknowledges dissatisfaction with Daudt’s role but professes uncertainty about whether there will be a putsch. “That just remains to be seen,” Stebbins insisted “We want to have a smooth convention. We don’t want to get into floor fights.”