College student John Ramsey stands out in a new campaign-finance world order filled with big names like Republican casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Democratic Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg.
The senior at Stephen F. Austin University is the founder of a team of college-age Republicans -- liberals have dubbed it the "Brat PAC" -- that helped propel one congressional candidate to victory and intends to get involved in other House races.
Ramsey is just the latest wealthy individual to try to influence federal elections in the wake of a series of federal court decisions that deregulated the campaign finance system and dramatically changed the country's political landscape.
It's not just his age -- he's 21 -- that sets him apart. There's his source of means: He turned $1 million of his inheritance into the Liberty For All Political Action Committee. And there's this: He's part of an army of young Ron Paul supporters who have turned their attention to federal, state and local races after their libertarian-leaning hero's presidential hopes were dashed once again.
"I could very easily, having that great fortune, be spending it on frivolous things -- big expensive cars or jets. But, you know, I'm really interested in making this world a better place," says Ramsey, a lanky 6-foot-7 Texan. "To be able to put your own personal wealth behind a humanitarian cause, it's really very refreshing for me."
In Ramsey's view, libertarian politics is humanitarian because it will produce a fiscally healthy United States and citizens who can afford to provide charity to poorer countries where people are starving.
He wouldn't have been able to choose this path if not for a series of federal court cases, including the Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling in 2010, that stripped away the old restrictions on campaign spending. Those changes have green-lighted wealthy individuals and corporations to open their wallets freely this election, but they've also given the OK for grassroots groups like Ramsey's to raise unlimited sums of cash.
As an economics and finance major, Ramsey is passionate in his belief that an overreaching government hinders rather than helps. He said his own philosophy mirrors that of Frederic Bastiat, a 19th century French legislator who decried government's intrusion on individual liberties, and that of Paul, the Texas congressman who gained a passionate following by espousing similar principles.
It's that belief that drove Ramsey to found his group, which the liberal-leaning magazine Mother Jones dubbed the Brat PAC.
Liberty For All's first order of business was supporting the primary campaign of a protege of Paul's son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for Kentucky's open 4th Congressional District seat.
Ramsey's committee poured a half-million dollars into that race to help Thomas Massie, a 41-year-old engineer and businessman, beat two well-established Republicans. One was state lawmaker Alecia Webb-Edgington, who had surged in polling after two influential politicians endorsed her.
Liberty For All's 23-year-old executive director, Preston Bates, initially ran ads that talked up Massie. Then he went on the air with attack ads against Webb-Edgington and a third contender, Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore. The strategy helped propel Massie to a decisive victory on May 22.
Massie credited the PAC for helping him overcome political adversity but added, "In a fair race, I would have won this without the PAC."
In winning the Republican nomination, he became the overwhelming favorite in the November general election over Democratic nominee Bill Adkins, a northern Kentucky attorney.
Bates said the Massie victory has given the fledgling PAC credibility and sparked hundreds of small contributions amounting to tens of thousands of dollars since the Kentucky primary. The group will have to report the exact amount in its July financial disclosure to the Federal Election Commission. That report, Bates said, will show Ramsey as the largest donor with a $1.3 million investment. Minus the $600,000 spent on the Massie race, the PAC will have to refill its coffers to have a continuing impact. Ramsey hasn't ruled out dropping in more cash himself.
The group is now turning its sights on a Michigan congressional race this fall, backing freshman Rep. Justin Amash's re-election. It plans to continue being involved in the Massie race, and perhaps 10 others that won't be announced until later this month. Bates also doesn't rule out the PAC's involvement in any of the remaining late primaries.
Ramsey is not without detractors. Adkins said he expects Kentuckians to refuse to let a rich Texan, whom he called "a bomb thrower" with "no clear agenda," tell them whom to elect to Congress. "He got his money the old-fashioned way -- he inherited it," Adkins said.
Republican Marcus Carey, another candidate who lost the primary to Massie, said people he has talked to since the primary seem angry that Ramsey "in their words, `bought the election.'"
"I think it's wonderful that young people are involved in politics and that young people are finding principles that they believe in and are becoming engaged," Carey said. But he said Ramsey's actions may have had negative consequences.
"What he did was he threw his weight around," Carey said, "and in doing it so, it has had a discouraging effect on others getting involved."