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How Paul Broun became America's top tea partier

Congressman Paul Broun's outrageous brand of conservatism has earned him a devoted following on the right. His road to Washington was just as unconventional.
House Republican Conference meeting with President Barack Obama
Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., speaks to reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference closed meeting with President Barack Obama in the basement of the Capitol on March 13, 2013.

Rep. Paul Broun’s life story is pretty unremarkable for a Washington politician at first glance. He was born into a prominent Democratic family, raised in a liberal college town, and then won a House seat thanks to overwhelming support from voters in Democratic enclaves.  

All ordinary enough, except Broun, now running for Senate, is arguably the most conservative Republican in federal office today  -- so conservative that national GOP strategists are worried his extreme rhetoric will cost them the race if he secures the party’s nomination. While polling on the contest is inconsistent, one March survey has Broun leading the field, which includes Representatives Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey, former Secretary of State Karen Handel, and businessman David Perdue.

Even in a post-tea party political environment, Broun’s greatest hits stand out.

In perhaps the purest culture war moment ever recorded on video, he stood in front of a wall of mounted deer heads and told a church group in 2012 that evolution and the Big Bang were “lies straight from the pit of hell,” that “the Earth is but about 9,000 years old” and that the Holy Bible determined his votes in Congress (Broun sits on the Science Committee). He’s not afraid to wade deep into conspiracy theories, suggesting in 2008 that President Obama, who he likened to Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx, was plotting an armed takeover with a civilian military force. Broun’s fundraising letters boast that he was “the first Member of Congress to call [Obama] a socialist who embraces Marxist-Leninist policies” and he said last month he’d vote to impeach the president.

Meet Rep. Paul Broun

Oct. 16, 201303:18

Despite his wilder quotes, Broun has a reputation as a disciplined retail politician. The Congressman rarely forgets a face and ends virtually all conversations with a personal plea for support. “Please vote for me,” he told this reporter, apparently out of habit, after a brief chat before the Macon debate.

“I always tease him that he breaks out in a sweat if he sees a hand that hasn’t been shaken,” wife Niki Broun, sporting a giant silver cross around her neck, told msnbc outside a pre-debate barbecue in Macon.

All the candidates in the GOP primary are conservative, but Broun is positioning himself most explicitly as an anti-system candidate in the mold of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, whose father, libertarian hero Ron Paul, has endorsed his campaign. Supporters are counting on Broun to wage total legislative war. 

“You know those Japanese soldiers they found in the 70s who were still fighting World War II?” Daniel Horowitz, policy director at the conservative Madison Project, which recently endorsed Broun, told msnbc. “This guy never lets up.”

Broun is known in Washington for voting against Republican bills from the right as part of a pledge to oppose any legislation he finds immoral, unconstitutional, unnecessary, or unaffordable. This willingness to buck leadership is a key part of his appeal to supporters, both in his district and in the Senate race. 

It doesn’t help Republican leaders seeking his vote that he owes the GOP establishment exactly nothing for his success.

His father, the late Paul Broun Sr., was elected to the Georgia state senate when Broun was in high school and served in office for 38 years. But while the elder Broun spent his career as a moderate Democrat, his son followed his own path, immersing himself in conservative activism.

“I joke about it with him,” Democratic State Senator Donzella James, who served with Broun’s father, told msnbc. “I tell him ‘Aren’t you a chip off the old block?’ and he laughs. Then I say, ‘No, you’re not!’”

According to Broun, his attraction to the right started with a passion for hunting – his office today is a zoological exhibit of exotic animals he’s shot -- which drew him into Second Amendment advocacy.

“I started studying what the whole Constitution was intended to be by our Founding Fathers and saw how far we've gotten away from it,” he told msnbc. “Our Founding Fathers knew an armed citizenry was the best means of protecting this country from having our government totally destroy our freedom and liberty.”

On a lobbying trip to Washington with fellow hunters in 1989 Broun was, as he would later tell the Atlanta Journal Constitution, personally called on by God to seek federal office.

Broun ran for Congress the next year and was easily defeated by the Democratic incumbent. Two years later, he moved into a more competitive district and lost in the Republican primary. Four years after that, he ran for Senate to replace retiring Sen. Sam Nunn -- a disastrous campaign in which Broun accused disabled Vietnam veteran Max Cleland of politically exploiting his wheelchair then delivered an emotional apology (“It was just way too big and too much,” Mrs. Broun recalls).

Taking a hiatus from politics, Broun moved to Democratic bastion Athens to practice medicine. After incumbent Rep. Charlie Norwood died, Broun entered a special election to replace him in 2007 against Republican Jim Whitehead, a former state senator who was overwhelmingly favored to win the open seat. Broun pumped a reported $90,000 of his own money into the race to stay afloat and only barely made the runoff against Whitehead, who secured more than twice as many votes.

Just as Whitehead appeared headed for an easy victory, he handed Broun a massive opening by making a joke about bombing the liberal University of Georgia in Athens. Broun seized on the remark to shift the campaign from an ideological contest to a regional battle between Whitehead’s Augusta and Broun’s Athens, claiming only he could represent the entire district.

“A lot of Athenians who would be solid blue Democrats heard that and thought ‘Well, he may be a sonofabitch but he's our sonofabitch,’” Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia in Athens, said.

Broun’s plan turned out to be brilliant: Democratic stronghold Clarke County gave the radically conservative candidate almost 90% support, nudging him past Whitehead by just a few hundred votes.

Just as Broun proved a surprisingly nimble candidate in his 2007 race, he’s recalibrated his message ever so slightly for this year’s Senate contest, deemphasizing social issues in favor of a more general attack on federal spending.  

“What’s going around the world is symptoms, the disease is big government,” he told msnbc. “We got to put that dragon that is big government back in its cage and the bars of the cage are the enumerated powers of the Constitution.”

He's also put renewed emphasis on his military background, which includes a stint in the Marines as a young man. More recently, he traveled to Afghanistan as a Navy reservist to help treat wounded soldiers in 2012. 

Broun has already shown once in his career that a candidate with a devoted following can surprise people in a low turnout election. His opponents would be wise not to underestimate him.