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Anti-War Activist Mounts GOP Campaign for Congress

Kokesh-sunglasses.jpg
Kokesh-sunglasses.jpg

Adam Kokesh at an antiwar rally in September 2007 (Flickr: ragessos)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had barely begun to give his acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention when a clamor went up in the upper levels of St. Paul’s XCel Center. Adam Kokesh, a marine who had become a leader of Iraq Veterans Against the War, stood up and unfurled a banner with two sides. On the first side: “YOU CAN’T WIN AN OCCUPATION.” On the other side: “MCCAIN VOTES AGAINST VETS.”

[GOP1] Security guards went into action and dealt with Kokesh’s banner; an irritated crowd of Republicans chanted “USA” until the banner was removed. McCain moved right on, but Kokesh hadn’t finished yet.

“I’m grateful to the president of the United States for leading us in these dark days following the worst attack in American history,” said McCain.

“Ask McCain why he votes against veterans!” shouted Kokesh.

He didn’t get another chance to rain on McCain’s parade, but Kokesh remained proud of what he did. A video that cut together the interruption with jokes, subtitles, and a pounding soundtrack went up on Kokesh’s YouTube account. It’s still there, even though Kokesh’s relationship to the Republican Party is very different now. He’s a candidate for Congress in New Mexico’s 3rd district, looking like the Republican front-runner just one short year after he crashed the convention. Over the course of a year, he’s made the move from confrontation-seeking anti-war activist to clean-cut politician in the mold of the man he supported in 2008, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

“The ground has really shifted away from the neocon agenda,” Kokesh told TWI during a break in his campaign schedule. “There was no influx of young people getting into the Republican Party to support John McCain. By contrast, Ron Paul brought a huge number of young people into the Republican Party. It’s really exciting to see that happening again with my campaign.”

Kokesh’s move into electoral politics–he is 27 years old, and this is his first stab at campaigning–unifies two trends that have made the GOP that will fight the midterm elections dramatically different than the one Kokesh used to protest. The first is the rise of Ron Paul’s libertarianism. After years of obscurity, Paul came out of the 2008 elections with a national fundraising base and new respect for his ideas about war and economics among Republican activists and voters. The second trend is the Tea Party movement. After feeling ignored by George W. Bush’s Republicans, the conservative base has come together to demand commitment to the Constitution, commitment to small government values, and guarantees of national and state sovereignty.

“He never had an official role in the campaign, but we could count on him to energize people,” said Jesse Benton, Paul’s spokesman. Kokesh was a late addition to Paul’s 2008 “Rally for the Republic,” an event meant to “bring the Republican Party back to its roots” held in Minneapolis before McCain’s address to the RNC in 2008.

“I’d like to think that this symbolizes some good old-fashioned traditional conservatism making a comeback in the GOP,” said Benton. “Republicans have seen that running as the ‘war party’ is a loser for them.”

Today, Kokesh argues that the efforts of Paul supporters look more or less successful. Bush-era “neocons” are out of the political mainstream, replaced by people like him. “Our nation is drifting dangerously from freedom to fascism,” Kokesh said at a July 2008 rally for Paul in Washington, D.C.; at a 2007 Senate hearing, he was photographed holding up a tally of how many times then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had said “I don’t recall.” But rhetoric that sounded out of the mainstream that year sounds perfectly in line with the comments of Republicans like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) or Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and criticism of the GOP or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are no longer controversial in the party’s grassroots.

“If you want to compare to Washington, yes, I’m a radical extremist,” Kokesh told TWI. “If you want to compare me to normal American values, I’m right in the middle of the road. I’m finding out that the grassroots of both parties are so grossly misrepresented by their representatives in Washington that we have more in common with each other.”

Depending on who’s analyzing the race, New Mexico’s third district is either an ideal or a poorly chosen battlefield for a candidate like Kokesh. It’s the most Democratic-leaning district in the state, having given 61 percent of the vote to the Obama-Biden ticket in 2008. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), the freshman that Kokesh wants to challenge, won his election by 27 points, spending $1.5 million to fend off a Republican who spent only $190,000. One Democratic insider labeled Kokesh as an interesting candidate with an interesting strategy and no chance to win.

“There is almost zero chance this seat will change hands,” said David Wasserman, House race editor of the Cook Political Report, which ranks NM-3 the 133rd bluest seat in America. “It is just too Democratic.”

Still, Democrats and Republicans in the district, with the election 11 months away, expressed some respect for a first-time campaigner (Kokesh is 27 years old) who cleaned up for politics in a hurry. His connections to Ron Paul’s movement have allowed him to raise near $150,000 in a few months since entering the campaign in August.

“He’s an interesting candidate,” said Richard Ellenberg, chairman of the Santa Fe County Democratic Party. “There are some people who surprise me with–I almost want to call it their ‘star-struck’ approach to this campaign. They were star-struck by Obama and they’re star-struck by Kokesh.”

A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Republican Party told TWI that the presence of another candidate in the Republican primary–Tom Mullins, another first-time politician–prevents the party from saying anything more than how its members are “excited to have strong candidates in this district.” But John Otter, a founder of the Green Party of the United States who is the party’s treasurer in Santa Fe, said that Kokesh had a shot at winning over anti-war liberals.

“Personally, I’d vote for him,” said Otter. “I’d be be attracted to someone with a position against the war. Lujan was elected with liberal votes, and he’s just gone with the flow.”

Kokesh’s appeal has a lot to do with the hard-edged activism that launched his career. He has traded in military fatigues for suits and plaid shirts. “I think people have told him that the one-fisted Black Panther salute might not sell anymore,” said Jesse Benton. His message, however, is the same anti-war libertarian populism that used to get him kicked out of buildings.

“You can’t just start chanting ‘End the Fed’ at a GOP county meeting,” said Kokesh. “You have to take a step back and explain this perspective on monetary policy. But what’s so exciting now, in terms of the opportunity presented by this horrible economic situation is that you can start teaching these Austrian economic principles, and all of a sudden they don’t seem so abstract because you can connect them to what’s happening in real life.”

Mullins, who entered the race in October and is running a more traditional Republican campaign, has not chosen to make an issue out of Kokesh’s anti-war activism or argue that his opponent is out of the party mainstream. “I disagree with his characterization of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as ‘occupations,’” said Mullins. “I think the president made the right decision, and we should finish the job, but to be honest the war doesn’t come up much right now.”

Kokesh agreed with Mullins, after smiling at how his opponent had tried to publicize his own libertarian credentials. (“He’s holding a copy of The Road to Serfdom on his website,” said Kokesh. “Of course, he’s also holding up a copy of Going Rogue.”) Anti-war activists are key to the Kokesh campaign. He received an attention-getting endorsement from former Sen. Mike Gravel, and he’s publicized his support from Tina Richards, a “marine mom” who gained notoriety after a heated 2007 confrontation with Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wisc.) over why Democrats refused to cut off funding for the Iraq War. But the issue that got him to confront John McCain isn’t motivating voters in New Mexico.

“Most of them don’t care, and that’s really sad,” said Kokesh. “It’s not just Republicans, but all voters. The Obama administration is keeping up the Bush policy of keeping Americans isolated from the war.”

But Democrats, even as they write off his chances at a win, say Kokesh’s transition from the anti-war movement to anti-Fed, libertarian populism is coming at a perfect time.

“I think he’s trying to pick up a national mantle, as a national personality in the Ron Paul mode,” said Ellenberg. “I think he’s been successful so far.”

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