When Rand Paul stepped out of his SUV in the parking lot of the Peppermill Restaurant in Las Vegas last Friday, he was trailed by a woman with bright white hair who looked like a cross between a campaign operative and a fairy.
I immediately recognized her as “Libertarian Girl,” a blogger and social-media personality who over the last few years has amassed a large following of hundreds of thousands by sharing her every political thought—and lots of selfies—on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Marianne Copenhaver is a 27-year-old from Ohio, who advertises herself as a “political activist, graphic designer, digital strategist.” Paul hired her about a month ago to do Web design and social-media outreach. She told me that the Las Vegas trip was the first time she had accompanied Paul on the road.
Copenhaver’s ideas, like those of many diehard libertarians, are far from traditional. She said she’s an “anarcho-capitalist,” someone who believes every government entity, from the library to the police department, should be privatized—which didn’t stop Paul from hiring her.
In fact, it was her outspoken persona that caught the eye of Paul’s top aides. Copenhaver, I reported on Monday, told me that she first was contacted by Doug Stafford, Paul’s top political adviser, about blogging for the campaign, but later explained to him that she believed she would be more beneficial to them working in a graphic-design and social-media capacity. (Stafford claims Copenhaver first contacted him about working on the campaign.) Copenhaver said she talks to Paul directly to “discuss things that we want to do with social media.”
While inside the Peppermill, I watched as Copenhaver drafted a tweet on her iPhone from Paul’s official account. She showed it to Stafford for approval, and he gave her the go-ahead to send it to the senator’s 534,000 followers.
A close reading of Copenhaver’s social-media history now has some asking whether or not Paul’s decision to saddle her with such responsibility speaks well of his judgment.
On Tuesday, The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website run by Bill Kristol’s son-in-law that frequently torments Paul, published a story that documented Copenhaver’s colorful social-media musings about politics:
“Copenhaver’s recent Facebook posts are filled with vehement attacks on the GOP’s foreign policy on Iran, Russia, the Islamic State, Syria, and Israel.
‘Nothing makes me rage harder than the GOP trying to start another god damn war. Listen up you stupid armchair jingoes, we (libertarians, constitutional conservatives, and anti-war dems) want nothing to do with your bullshit special interest fueled wars,’ wrote Copenhaver in November 2013.”
Other Copenhaver posts referred to Sen. John McCain’s “blood lust,” and offered a “Side note: A big fuck you to Lindsey Graham and John McCain.”
Additionally, Copenhaver suggested that “Edward Snowden deserves a Nobel Peace Prize NOT President Obama.”
In an update to its story, the Free Beacon added that Copenhaver “also opposed the Pledge of Allegiance because it was ‘developed by Francis Bellamy, a socialist,’ as a way to, ‘sell more issues of [the] magazine Youth’s Companion.’”
In response, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin—who often pillories Paul—wrote asking, “Why is it that [Paul] attracts people with these outlandish views? Well, for one thing Paul suggests that he might agree with some of them… one might expect that people who espouse the views Paul does and who traffic in smears attract people very far off the political spectrum.”
I asked Copenhaver how she felt about the media’s reaction to her. In a text, she said, “My opinions are mine and not Senator Paul’s. I don’t speak for him, nor do I have any role in which I would ever speak for or advise him on policy… I don’t think it is fair to have my old Facebook comments scrutinized by the media. Those comments were made long before I worked for Senator Paul. I’m sure neither Graham nor McCain will lose any sleep over my comments but for what it’s worth I am sorry. Regardless of my policy disagreements with them I certainly could have been more polite.”
Stafford, distancing the senator from his latest hire, told The Daily Beast: “I think if you are in your twenties, you grew up in a world where far too much of your life and your words are online. It’s something that’s never been dealt with before.”
“Is it fair? No, not really. Especially for someone who isn’t in a job that involves policy or isn’t a spokesman for the person in office or running for office.”
“Those of us in politics ask often why people hold it in low regard, and also why more people don’t enter into it. This little episode answers both of those questions if you look closely.”
Asked if Copenhaver would be fired, Stafford, who is from Long Island, texted: “Fire my graphic and web designer for old Facebook comments? Y’all are more than a little crazy, you know that right?”
It would be a crazy question, perhaps, if this weren’t such a familiar predicament for Paul.
In 2013, The Free Beacon reported extensively about the musings of the “Southern Avenger”—the former radio personality/alter ego of Jack Hunter, Paul’s then-director of new media and the co-author of his first book. During appearances as the Southern Avenger, Hunter, The Free Beacon reported, “often wore a mask on which was printed a Confederate flag,” and said in 2004 that John Wilkes Booth’s heart was “in the right place.”
Hunter denounced his own comments, and Paul stood by him until he offered his resignation a week later. Hunter has since apologized for his indiscretions and now serves as editor of Rare.us, a libertarian website that champions Paul, although he maintains that his professional ties to the senator are permanently severed.
Asked about Copenhaver, Hunter said in an email: “The neoconservatives are scared to death of Rand Paul right now, particularly his influence on the Republican foreign policy debate. They can either attack his views head-on or they can try to paint him as some sort of extremist using guilt by association… In bringing up extreme and embarrassing statements from my past, they drew blood. With this latest story, they embarrassed themselves. I’m sure it won’t be the last time, especially as they become more desperate.”
My mentioning Hunter is not, I should note, meant to conflate praising Edward Snowden or denouncing John McCain with complimenting John Wilkes Booth, but to highlight the fact that Paul does, as Rubin contends, often find himself surrounded by “fringe” characters, and it has been and will likely continue to be a serious political problem for him.
In one sense, it does reflect poorly on the judgment of someone who is clearly running for president if he can’t employ people wise enough to avoid hiring staffers who could pose an obvious political problem.
Conversely, shouldn’t we, in 2015, be beyond this sort of thing? Barring instances when it’s a communications professional who has said controversial things that reflect negatively on his or her boss, shouldn’t we now expect that almost anyone working in almost any job has said something that could be viewed as objectionable by someone?
If the new rule is that you can’t work on a campaign if you’ve expressed an opinion on the Internet to which someone could object, all campaigns of the future will be staff-less and boring.
But maybe boring’s not such a bad thing for wannabe presidents.
Copenhaver is not, my conversations with her indicate, a loose cannon. But if her first campaign outing was enough to result in several national media outlets directing their attention at her, it proves that she will continue to be, at the very least, a not-boring shiny object that distracts from the campaign’s star.