The car bearing Allen West to the Capitol pulls over so the former House member can show identification to a security guard. The officer recognizes him instantly and pushes West's ID away. Then he reaches into the passenger-side window and pulls the Army veteran in for a bro-hug. "We gotta get you back here," the officer says.
"Oh, I'll be back," West replies, flashing his slightly gap-toothed smile. "Tell the fellas."
The truth is, Allen West never really left. During his single term in the House, which ended in January, he carved a path as distinctive as his trademark salt-and-pepper flattop -- not just for his bombastic rhetoric but also for being the first black Republican elected from Florida since Reconstruction. Some might slink away from Washington after losing their first reelection battle in one of the nation's best-funded campaigns, and in a district carried by Mitt Romney. Not West, the Tea Party outsider who decided he'd hold onto his Capitol Hill basement apartment. "Of course I did," he says, as if it were even a question.
And why would it be? He's still at the Capitol about three days a week to conduct interviews for a new Internet-based television show he hosts -- one of West's many ventures. He has a contract to appear frequently on Fox News. He funded a nonprofit (the Allen West Foundation, of course), finished a book manuscript (coming early next year), and raised impressive amounts of campaign cash (leading plenty of people to speculate about his plans for 2016). In the first six months of 2013, his Allen West Guardian Fund, a leadership PAC, pulled in $1.3 million, a figure on par with the upper echelon of his former House colleagues.
By losing his spot in Congress, West may have failed upward. "In some ways, my ability to impact the conversation has somewhat exponentially grown," he says. His docket is so full these days that a 75-minute meeting is carved into his calendar just to discuss all the far-flung elements of "the empire."
As he enters the Rayburn House Office Building on a hot July day, West breezes past the metal detector. ("They know me here," he explains.) He's on his way to interview House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. He presses the "members only" button on the elevator, and even though another car arrives first, he opts for the exclusive one. "The only difference now is that I don't have to be constantly paying attention for the voting bell to ring," he says, noting he even goes home to his family in Florida on the weekends, just like he did as a member.
But while it all feels familiar, there is a big difference today. West is no longer just one of 435. Now he's the founder, president, and CEO of a rising political force: Allen West Inc.
The Last Samurai
The operation has expanded recently from West's basement apartment -- which he calls "the bat cave" -- to a suite on the eerily empty third floor of an office building only blocks from his old office. The walls are barren because many of them are going to be torn down to build a bigger filming studio. The place has the feel of a start-up. A half-dozen young women mill about. West's flat-screen TV, tuned to Fox News, sits atop a cardboard box. A Post-it Note stuck to his computer reminds him that his password is "allenwest." Talking points about Trayvon Martin and a packet of Clearasil wipes sit atop his desk. Oh, and there's a samurai sword.
"I'm pretty scared about you having a samurai sword. That's insane," says Michelle Fields, a rising conservative star and correspondent on his show. "Take it out! I want to see what it looks like."
A fan had arrived, unannounced, bearing the weapon just hours earlier. (The security guards downstairs didn't stop him.) "I'd never met him, but he said because I'm a stand-up guy willing to fight for my beliefs, I should have it. If a guy is going to give another guy a gift, this is cool. I don't want a guy coming in and giving me cologne or some kind of basket," West says. "I mean, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, dude."
West, like Sarah Palin, inspires the true believers. His caustic brand of Republicanism -- he has said Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels would be "very proud" of Democrats and that as many as 80 communists secretly lurk among the Democrats in Congress -- turned him into a conservative icon. By November 2012, his campaign team says, it had more than 100,000 active donors who had contributed nearly $19 million. "It's an unheard of sum," says Brock McCleary, who was the deputy political director for the House Republicans' campaign operations last year.
To put his haul in context, the only House members to raise more money than West last cycle were Speaker John Boehner and those running for president (Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas). West's reelection campaign outraised that of Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, by more than $11 million.
West did it by investing heavily in direct-mail and e-mail solicitations that capitalized on his image as a Tea Party rabble-rouser, a military veteran serving his nation, and, of course, a rare black Republican. His campaign spent more than $7.4 million on fundraising, much of it for direct-mail solicitations. West received so many contributions that he reported spending more than $200,000 in bank and credit-card fees just to process all the incoming money.
The secret of Allen West's success is that, despite appearances, he is more strategic than spontaneous. Every crazy comment he makes raises his profile and the amount of money in his coffers. Every joke is workshopped (at least in his own head) to best charm the press. Every attempt to shoot down a 2016 rumor is actually an effort to keep his name in the mix.
He has been able to drive his own coverage, even out of office. West was mentioned in 185,000 Twitter and Facebook posts in the first six months of 2013, according to Crimson Hexagon, a social-media analytics firm. That was almost the same volume as the first six months of 2012, when he was mentioned 220,000 times during a reelection campaign in which he accused Democrats of being communists (and drew national attention). He counts nearly 350,000 fans on Facebook (40 percent more than, say, the Sierra Club), more than 150,000 of whom have joined since his electoral defeat, his advisers say.
West's mail operation continues to hum. It ensures that he, unlike so many of his former colleagues who depend on the largesse of the lobbying class, isn't tethered to the whims of Washington elites. This large donor base gives West the freedom to speak his mind -- demands it, even. It also, crucially, provides him the time to build his empire and to amass the money that will serve as his mortar.
He keeps a busy schedule. One July day began with a conference call to his publisher to negotiate a release date for his book (he joked earlier on Twitter that he'd thought about calling it Dreams From My American Father). Then there was a Politico interview to talk about the Rev. Al Sharpton's role as commentator in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, followed by a radio hit with Sean Hannity in which he discussed the "Stand Your Ground" laws. Next was the trip to the Capitol for the interview with Goodlatte. Then it was back to the studio to film a segment, followed by an event West was hosting at a wine bar on the Hill to ply press secretaries with free alcohol and encourage them to put their bosses on his show.
West has so much going these days that he and his advisers still haven't figured out what exactly to do with a second nonprofit he launched, the American Legacy Guardians, with another $250,000 in campaign money.
An Insider's Outsider
West is not the first lawmaker to leave Congress -- in his case, albeit, involuntarily -- hoping to make an even bigger mark. South Carolina's Jim DeMint resigned his Senate seat last December, only two years after winning reelection, to head the Heritage Foundation, one of the most influential conservative organizations in Washington. West, by contrast, is trying to build something from scratch. "It's crazy. I served one term of Congress, and now I'm busier than I ever was as a congressman," he says.
The goal is to start by instilling conservative values in young people and minorities -- two growing sectors of the electorate crucial to Republican survival -- and then get some of them elected to office. This requires two types of organizations.
First, there's the Allen West Foundation, whose role as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit bars it from some political activity. West doesn't take part in the day-to-day operations of this enterprise, but he started it with $650,000 in leftover campaign funds. And in the words of its executive director, Joe Finley, "The foundation is just looking to foster Colonel West's vision. He wants to get it to a point where it will be in perpetuity." By hosting seminars in urban areas and encouraging engagement in youth military organizations like the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, West hopes to inspire a new generation of minority Republicans.
But to be truly successful, West doesn't just want citizens to think like him -- he wants those citizens to run the country. Only one in five members of the House and Senate are military veterans, down from nearly four in five in the late 1970s. The House has no black Republicans. That's where the Guardian PAC comes in. West says he plans to raise between $5 million and $6 million and spread it out over 12 congressional elections, backing veteran and minority candidates around the country. He's already on pace to raise that sum after what is typically the slowest six months in the political fundraising cycle.
Democrats are giddy about the prospect of West's expanding influence. Ali Lapp, executive director of a Democratic super PAC that spent more than $2 million to unseat West last year, says that while West's rhetoric may raise gobs of money, it turns off swing voters. "It might play well to the activist base that is funding all his endeavors, but it doesn't play well with voters who decide elections," she says. "There's no race that shows that better than his own race last year."
That contest was the most expensive House race in the country; it also was one of the closest. In the end, West couldn't win over enough of the moderate country-club Republicans who live along the Treasure Coast of Florida, and he lost, by less than 1 percent of the vote, to Patrick Murphy.
In some ways, it's not surprising that West appeals more to die-hard conservatives around the country than to those Republicans in his wealthy coastal district. He said recently that Attorney General Eric Holder is "a bigger threat to our Republic" than the leader of al-Qaeda. He dons leather vests at motorcycle rallies. As an Army officer, he turned an incident in which he fired a gun near an Iraqi police officer's head -- for which he was fined -- into a heroic act. (In 2003 testimony about the case, he declared he would "go through hell with a gasoline can for [his] men.")
He knows that his support comes from the Right, not anywhere else on the political spectrum. So his job, as he sees it, is to engage the diehards in a way nobody else can. "I speak the truth, I'm not going to spin it, I'm not going to try and run away from things," West says.
At the same time, beneath his brash exterior, the former Army lieutenant colonel knows how to fall into line. No matter how outlandish the statement, he keeps a deadpan tone, so he never seems unhinged. And, according toNational Journal's analysis of congressional votes, he was only the 110th-most-conservative member of the House in 2012 -- the middle of the GOP pack. He left Congress in the good graces of the Republican leadership, meaning he was deft enough to please the GOP establishment and the Tea Party at the same time.
Perhaps the most telling moment came during the 2011 debt-limit showdown, as Congress took the nation to the brink of default. In a closed-door meeting, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy played a scene from the movieThe Town to fire up and unite the fractious Republican Conference. On-screen, one character tells another: "I need your help. I can't tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later." His friend responds, "Whose car are we gonna take?"
Then West stood up and pronounced: "I'm ready to drive the car." The bomb-thrower in public was a team player behind the scenes.
Still, even some in West's orbit doubt that a man with his track record -- he lost a district that Mitt Romney won, despite a $19 million war chest and a young opponent who had never held office -- should be driving much of anything. "It's one thing to be beaten by the sheriff or the county commissioner, but to be beaten by a 29-year-old construction executive who worked at daddy's company -- that's a sad commentary," says a former adviser who requested anonymity to speak candidly. The No. 1 job of any elected freshman in Congress is to get reelected, and West failed. "Anybody in politics who can put two and two together can come to that conclusion," the adviser says.
But West is looking beyond the House. His Guardian PAC recently held an online "straw poll" among his e-mail contacts for the 2016 Republican presidential race. (West wasn't listed among the choices; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky finished second.) The effort, of course, doubled as a way to draw ever more e-mail addresses.
What, specifically, is West working toward? Despite his desire to anoint conservative candidates, he denies he wants to be a "kingmaker." He insists, "I'm not trying to take over the country. I'm not, what's that cartoon show, Pinky and the Brain? I'm not trying to take over the universe."
So he won't run for president? "God will decide what path for me to be on," he says, back in his office, while eating peanut butter with a spoon and watching a video of himself online. "And then I'll discuss it with my wife and my daughters.… I'll see Him eventually in eternity, but I live with them every day."
It's a line he uses often -- Allen West is still a politician, after all. ("You guys keep asking me the same questions, so I have to be prepared," he says later, at the happy hour he was hosting.) There's nothing he seems to relish more than being asked about higher office. Just weeks after losing his reelection bid in November, West was already busy fanning the flames.
"Always remember," he said as he wound up an NPR interview, "Abraham Lincoln only served one term in Congress, too."