Rand Paul spent his Sunday evening sending urgent messages to his 549,000 Twitter followers—11 of them in all, beginning at 7:01 and ending at 11. The tweets included a link to a petition that begged all who clicked to “Stop Obama’s BATF Ammo Ban! Add Your Name.”
Beneath an unflattering photo of President Obama was a letter from Paul himself. “President Obama is determined to cement his anti-gun agenda into law. Recently, Obama’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF) announced they will ban .223 M855 ammunition...And I’m counting on your immediate action to help RANDPAC flood the agency with a message from America’s pro-gun majority.”
In order to sign the petition, users were asked to provide their first name, last name, email address, and ZIP code.
“After you submit your petition, please help me contact and mobilize as many pro-gun Americans as possible by chipping in a generous contribution of $20 or $10 today.”
The petition, paid for by the Kentucky senator’s political action committee, RANDPAC, felt oddly familiar.
Indeed, urgent Twitter appeals for cash to help roll back the Obama agenda have been a constant presence across Paul’s social media accounts for weeks.
On February 20, he was begging people to sign a petition to “#AuditTheFed.”
On February 24, he was urging supporters to help defund “#ExecutiveAmnesty.”
On March 5, he was soliciting signatures to “#RepealObamacare.”
“Dear Dr. Paul, I agree!” the latter petition read. “There’s no denying the American people overwhelmingly rejected ObamaCare in November 2014. To help you fight for the FULL REPEAL of ObamaCare, I am signing and submitting my REPEAL OBAMACARE petition to my U.S. Representative and Senators.”
After 24 hours of incessantly promoting the petition, Paul tweeted: “We reached our goal with over 1200 signatures! Your pressure is vital in the fight to #RepealObamacare.”
The petitions, according to RANDPAC, will be sent “to the Capitol Hill offices of your U.S. Representative and Senators” to help convince them to support auditing the fed, or defunding executive amnesty, or repealing Obamacare, or “#StopObamasAmmoBan.” Never mind that none of these proposals have any chance of passing Congress this year.
They’re not really about the Congress’s legislative agenda. They’re about Paul’s political future.
The senator is in the awkward position of running for president without being able to explicitly say, “I’m running for president.” Rather than just a means of alerting Paul’s fellow senators that conservatives support his ideas, the petitions appear to be a clever way to collect the personal information of potential donors who are active on the Internet and can eventually help propel a digital grassroots movement for Paul when he formally announces his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Yes, your congressman’s office might get a notification of some kind (Paul’s staff didn’t answer a question about whether it would be a physical document or an email) that says you don’t like Obama messing with your ammo, but more important for Paul, the senator is going to use that email address you provided to hit you up for cash as soon as his campaign starts and perhaps entice you into volunteering for the effort.
In between petitions, Paul has promoted a “Stand With Rand ® Directive,” aimed at a generic “Fellow Lover of Liberty”:
To win going forward, I need to know I can continue to count on you to stand with me. So please sign your “Stand with Rand®” Directive right away!
And after you sign your pledge, please chip in a contribution so RANDPAC can mobilize constitutional conservatives across America to help our movement win in 2015 and beyond.
“And beyond.” Wonder what that could mean.
Asked if the petitions are just an excuse to get the private information of supporters so that they can be asked for money once the campaign gets moving, Doug Stafford, a senior Paul aide, responded via email: “It enables us to engage people specifically on an issue. It allows us to know what issue they care about so that we can send them news and updates on this issue. And yes, it helps us build a list of people who agree with and support Senator Paul on specific issues.”
The petitions, which are hardly uncommon, especially on the right, seem disingenuous. After all, writing a check to Paul’s PAC isn’t going to help convince Congress to pass an audit-the-Fed bill. But someone reading the Paul petition might come to the mistaken conclusion that there’s some connection between the two.
To that point, Stafford claimed that public support moves policy in Washington while also acknowledging that despite the majority of the population supporting auditing the Fed, it has never happened: “Actually it does often take public support to move things in Washington. 75 percent of Americans supported an Audit the Fed bill last Congress, but the bill wasn’t even voted in the Senate.”
He added, “It often takes more than theoretical support. It takes action.” Petitions, he said, are action.
This form of voter-information-gathering, which occasionally has the whiff of a scam, is familiar to Paul. His father, former congressman and two-time presidential candidate Ron Paul, became a pioneer of direct mail and grassroots fundraising after he entered politics in the mid-1970s. In between stints in Congress, he ran a lucrative newsletter business targeting conservatives that reportedly earned $940,000 in one year in the early 1990s.
More recently, while running for president in 2007, the elder Paul raised $6 million in a 24-hour period in one of his famous “moneybombs.” (In all he raised an impressive $34 million in that campaign.) In his 2010 Senate campaign, Rand Paul mimicked his father’s fundraising tactics and dipped into his father’s base of supporters. He held his own “moneybomb” and in the end outraised his better-known Democratic opponent by $2 million.
But Paul isn’t the only likely Republican 2016 candidate sneakily obtaining his supporters’ personal information.
At CPAC, the right-wing Comic-Con where speakers address a different crowd than on Twitter, Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, made an odd request of the crowd. “To turn this country around, it will not come from Washington, it will come from the American people,” he yelled. “And so I will ask every one of you if you will join our grassroots army. Take out your cellphone and text the word ‘Constitution’ to the number 33733. Let me give that to you again! Take out your cellphone and text the word ‘Constitution’ to 33733!”
I sent a text to 33733 and received an automated reply: “Together let’s bring bold, clear leadership to America tedcruz.org. Text STOP to end or HELP for help. Msg&Data Rates May Apply. No more than 30 messages/month.”