The Right Wing

How Tea Party Candidates Like Joe Miller and Rand Paul Benefit From Armed, Right-Wing Militia Groups

Conservative candidates walk a fine line between getting the political support of militias, while avoiding charges of extremism unpalatable to the mainstream.

Throughout the election, members of Alaska's Citizen Militia have rallied behind Tea Party-backed GOP nominee Joe Miller. They've shown up at his town hall meetings, and posted "Vote for Miller" signs around town. Norm Olson, a prominent Michigan militia leader in the '90s who now commands Alaska's militia, explains they have to walk a tightrope. "If we put on uniforms and do a parade, it might look like 1936 Germany," Olson told AlterNet. They avoid “stomping around in uniform” under their militia banner.

Others don’t hold back. In a recent parade, Miller supporters marched behind the candidates' Hummer with assault rifles on their shoulders and handguns strapped to their legs.

Joe Miller isn't the only Tea Party-backed national candidate attracting militia support with his staunch Constitutionalist support of the Second Amendment, which in its entirety includes the right of citizens to form militias. U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul, who like his father is a favorite among militia members, spoke at a Second Amendment event last March outside Kentucky’s state capitol to a crowd of armed, uniformed members of the Ohio Valley Freedom Fighters. Rand joked that while he wasn’t armed that day, he felt “like I have a private security out there.” Militia forums lit up when he won the senate nomination. Even militia members outside Kentucky rallied in support of Paul.

Meanwhile, Ray Southwell, who is running for Alaska's House Speaker, is actively promoting his position as one of the foremost militia leaders of the '90s, and a current member of Alaska Citizens militia. Southwell confidently says his militia experience “has definitely helped me privately, even if the demonization by the press has caused people not to publicly support me. Just watch and see the numbers that vote for me on Tuesday.”

As militias grow in number in the Obama era, conservative candidates have to walk a fine line between getting the political support of militias to generate local votes, while avoiding national headlines accusing them of extremism. Advocating for militia rights would have been considered political suicide in prior elections—and it's still risky—but for staunch constitutionalists it’s a given part of a pro-Second Amendment platform. What results are politicians like Miller and Paul using lots of double-talk and symbolism.

When Joe Miller announced his decision to run for the Republican nomination on April 19, militia members like Southwell and Norm Olson, who together founded the Michigan militia in the 1990s before moving to Alaska, took it as a symbolic gesture. “It was a signal across the state,” says Olson. “That was a subtle nonverbal to us anyway that something good was coming out of his campaign.” April 19, of course, is the battle on the Lexington Green, the chosen day for nationwide Second Amendment marches, as well as the anniversary of the Oklahoma Bombing. “He has the credentials, background and ideology to stand up and oppose the federal regime in Washington,” says Olson of Miller, whose anti-federal stance is so strong he’s advocating that Alaska should have complete power—including the power to mine Denali National Park.

Even many militia members recognize the need for political savvy, so as not to alienate voters. Ray Southwell, who met Miller at a small community meeting in April, says, “we asked him tough questions and he came out a strong advocate of the Second Amendment. He doesn’t run from it. But as a politician, he won’t come out and join one."

Miller’s militia ties hit mainstream news when his security guard Bill Fulton detained a journalist at one of Miller’s events. Fulton was discovered to be a regular poster on the Alaskan Citizen’s Militia forum and main supplier of their gear.

Despite their potential for causing candidates national embarrassment, militia members have proven strong political activists, not just within their own organizations, but by joining highly vocal Tea Party groups. They fill online forums with election discussions, put out nationwide blasts endorsing candidates, and donate during money bombs. Many forums, including the United States Militia and a Well Regulated Militia, have whole sections dedicated to election discussions. Militia Web sites have voter guides, information on specific bills, republished interviews with candidates, and endorsements for libertarian and Tea Party candidates.

Many Tea Partiers support the constitutional right to form a militia as outlined in the Second Amendment, which in a sense has helped bring militias more into the open this election. During the last militia heyday in the '90s, Second Amendment debates tended to center around hunting. The current Tea Party-propelled popularity of staunch Constitutionalism has moved the discussion to the rights of militias.

This issue came to the forefront in the Oklahoma elections earlier this year, when legislation was proposed that would outlaw militia recruiting. Several states, including Florida, Idaho, Georgia, New York and Illinois have passed legislation limiting militia participation. Oklahoma’s Randy Broaden, who was then running for State Senate, met with state militia supporters, and publicly announced his belief that citizen units were authorized under the Second Amendment. The founding fathers "were not referring to a turkey shoot or a quail hunt,” he said. “They really weren't even talking about us having the ability to protect ourselves against each other. The Second Amendment deals directly with the right of an individual to keep and bear arms to protect themselves from an overreaching federal government."

And, of course, many candidates are campaigning on the right of citizens to use guns against the government—a thinly veiled way to support militias without coming right out and saying so. In an election video, Georgia’s congressional candidate, Paul Broun, says the Second Amendment “protects our every other right. Having personally experienced oppression and tyranny, our founding fathers understood that only armed citizens can remain free. It is this right that enables citizens to defend themselves and their country from potential of government repression and tyranny. On this issue there is no room for compromise.”

With that kind of language, he’s avoided the “m-word”—and the headlines. Oath Keeper and Florida congressional candidate Lt. Colonel Allen West called for a need to “fight back against a tyrannical government” in a January speech. “If you are here to stand up to get your musket to fix your bayonet and charge into the right, you are my brother or sister in this fight.” On television, Texas Republican congressional candidate Stephen Broden said, “We have the right to get rid of this government by any means necessary. Violence is part of the scenario. The option is on the table. But it is not the first option.” (The first option, of course, is voting for him.)

As one Oath Keeper explained to me, carrying weapons to town hall meetings isn’t meant to be a threat of violence, but a strong reminder of constitutional rights that are being threatened. All the same, it’s hard not to interpret an AR-15 slung over someone’s shoulder as a threat. Especially in areas where armed trainings in preparation for impending tyranny or martial law aren’t the normal weekend activity, these images are shocking.

Politicians like Paul, Miller, Coburn and West may try to deny their support for militias while simultaneously signaling support. (None responded to my requests about their stance on militias.) Is advocating for militias worth the risk? As Southwell said, Tuesday’s results will tell.

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