New Hampshire libertarians lost Rand Paul, but they have reason to celebrate

Story highlights

  • Many New Hampshire libertarians were looking forward to supporting Rand Paul
  • Whether Ted Cruz can actually inspire libertarians here to show up for him is yet to be seen

(CNN)It was an unlikely night for New Hampshire libertarians to throw a party.

Just hours earlier, Rand Paul, the most libertarian-ish of all the presidential candidates, announced he was dropping out of the race, mere days before the first-in-the-nation primary here. But that night, members of the Free State Project -- a growing group of "liberty" activists who set a goal to convince thousands of like-minded people to move here to build what they hope will become the freest state in the nation -- finally reached their goal of having 20,000 people commit to relocate to New Hampshire to join their movement.
And to celebrate, the group's leaders threw a bash at a non-descript speakeasy in downtown Manchester Wednesday night. Access was guarded by a secret password that party-goers whispered into an intercom outside an unmarked door. Inside, several dozen "Free Staters," as they're called, guzzled down glasses of craft cocktails.
Although many within this movement eschew national politics, conversations about Paul's decision to get out of the race abounded. Paul may not have been perfect to them, but he was as close a friend as they had on the presidential stage. Now he was gone, just days before they even had a chance to show their support.
"I was actually shocked that he had dropped out," said Carla Gericke, the group's president. "It would have been great to see how he did in New Hampshire."
Ryan Miner, who made the trip to New Hampshire from Maryland to campaign for Paul before the primaries, said he was left without a contender.
"I was disappointed, but now we're candidate shopping," Miner said.
Earlier that day, Miner had gone to a rally for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is aggressively seeking to scoop up former Paul supporters, but said he was uncertain whether he was willing to put forth the same effort for Cruz. "I'm still not convinced," he said.
Other Paul volunteers echoed similar views, saying they probably would just stay out of the race altogether.
"I made a lot of phone calls for Rand Paul," said Keith Ammon, a young Republican state legislator who had endorsed Paul with about 30 other House members. "A lot of friends of mine are enamored by Ted Cruz, but there's something inauthentic about him. I'll probably just be quiet and not endorse another campaign."
But for some -- especially those who were inspired by Ron Paul, Rand's father -- the younger Paul failed to impress altogether. During his campaign for president, Paul seemed less of a carbon copy of his idealistic father than an independent-minded Republican willing to make compromises to appeal to a wider base of the party. His pragmatic approach, however, lost him support from the movement's true believers.
"He didn't inspire the same passion," said Mike Vine, a member of the Free State Project. "Rand compromised on some key issues like war and Iran where people really thought it was a deal-breaker and took the wind out of their sails."
Whether Cruz can actually inspire libertarians here to show up for him is yet to be seen, and movement leaders have warned that he's not one of them. Ron Paul, for example, told The Washington Post that Cruz was "a real libertarian fake," and Nick Gillespie, the editor of the libertarian Reason.com, wrote in January that Cruz's advances to his ideological brethren were "laughable."
But Cruz doesn't claim to a dye-in-the-wool libertarian. Instead, he portrays himself as a figure who can unite them with the Republican coalition. It's a valid argument, but might not be enough to secure him another state victory next week.
For others here, whether it's Cruz, Paul or even Donald Trump, it doesn't matter anyway.
"I imagine that a lot of Free Staters who move here have given up on national politics," Gericke said. "There's really no legitimate candidate that represents anything that this country was founded on."