Ron Paul supporters are taking over state party organizations across the country — and that could spell trouble for Mitt Romney and other establishment Republicans come election time.
Paul backers have seized control of the Iowa Republican Party and gained influential roles in Nevada and a number of other states. While some are loyal Republicans who happen to hold more libertarian views, others are more strident Paul supporters who are less interested in helping Romney and other more mainstream Republicans get elected in November.
Much of the focus of Paul movement’s has been on winning delegates for the Republican National Convention, but their organizing efforts have had broader goals — and that has led to some wins for Paul supporters for some key local positions.
Iowa and Nevada, two critical swing states in the presidential election, loom as Romney’s biggest concerns.
Nevada's Republican Party has long been a shambles — its failure to count all of the ballots on caucus night in 2012 is just the latest in a string of embarrassments.
Local observers say that the party is in even worse shape than it’s been in the past, and Paul backers have capitalized on traditional Republicans’ disorganization, seizing control of the Clark County Republican Party — an organization that covers two-thirds of the state’s population — and getting their preferred candidate as the new head of the state party.
They are expected to fight hard at the state party’s convention this week to get Paul backers sent as delegates to the Republican National Convention in late August, a push that’s happened in many caucus states.
“It is much worse now than it’s ever been,” said Nevada politics guru Jon Ralston. “The Republican Party here would have to be upgraded to get to ‘weak’ status… no one with any brains would go through the state party.”
Top Republicans privately acknowledge the local party’s weaknesses could be a big hurdle for Romney, as well as Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who is locked in a tight race, and for the two swing House seats in the state.
Iowa's state party is in much better shape overall but many of its top leaders worked against Romney in the caucuses. The party’s new state chairman, A.J. Spiker, is a Paul supporter, as are a majority of the state party’s central committee members.
Spiker has pledged to work for all the party’s nominees, and Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, called him a “respectable guy” who would do so. But he fretted whether others in the state party structure would do the work necessary to help Romney win in the state.
“This could be problematic for Romney down the road and problematic for Iowa Republicans in general,” Robinson said. “I think Iowa’s going to be very tough, very difficult for Mitt Romney this fall.”
Robinson said half the fault lay with Romney, who did little to organize in the state before its caucuses and has essentially ignored Iowa since then. But he said that the Paul forces had simply outworked traditional Republicans.
“It’s down to a matter of trust,” he said. “If you’re the Romney campaign, can you trust the Iowa GOP to work with you? If this delegation is going to go down to the Florida convention and cast their votes for Ron Paul, I think the answer is no. I wouldn’t blame the Romney campaign for being skeptical of working with the Iowa GOP.”
There have already been some sparks between Romney and top Iowa Republicans. At a Republican National Convention meeting in late April, the state’s three committee members were barred from a private reception with Romney after refusing to sign forms pledging to back him at the party’s national convention.
Drew Ivers, a member of the state Republican Party’s central committee who was Paul’s 2012 Iowa campaign chairman, hesitated when asked if he would work to help Romney.
“I’m waiting for him to respond more clearly that he’s going to help enact some change,” he told The Hill after blasting Romney for failing to focus on the state. “It’s going to depend on him… It makes it a lot easier if he’s really showing some real honest efforts to change and not just have the status quo.”
The Republican National Committee played down concerns about Paul backers not working for Romney.
“There's no doubt that Ron Paul and his supporters run great grassroots operations, we've seen that for years now, and I think Ron Paul's first goal is to defeat the president,” said RNC spokesman Kirsten Kukowksi. “I'm sure some discussions are being had right now but at the end of the day we'll be on the same team and we'll love to have Ron Paul supporters on board.”
Paul backers have had success winning key roles in other state-level GOP organizations in states including Maine, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Washington. While none of those states are likely to be competitive at the presidential level all have competitive House, Senate or governor’s races.
In Massachusetts, Paul backers took a large number of Republican National Convention delegate slots at last weekend’s state convention. Some argue Paul supporters’ enthusiasm may actually help Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in his tough reelection fight — the man who organized Paul’s delegate push also was a major Brown backer during in his 2010 special election win and has loaned out a floor of an office building he owns to the state Republican Party.
But such comity is not commonplace. New Hampshire Republicans forced their Tea Party-supported chairman out of office after he struggled to raise money and win special elections.
In Minnesota, Senate candidate Pete Hegseth (R), the establishment’s pick, is facing a serious challenge from Paul supporter Curt Bills. Bills has a real shot at preventing Hegseth from winning the party’s nomination at the state convention in two weeks, which would push him into an August primary and give him almost no time to prepare for an uphill race against Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D).