Campaign Wishes and Libertarian Dreams

Will the LP be the Texans or the Mexicans in this year's electoral Alamo?

Tom DeLay's political career really is over. The Texas courts won't let the Republican party simply replace DeLay on the ballot, even after the former majority leader went to the trouble of hammering several pipsqueak primary opponents for the right to cut and run.

DeLay's crisis has robbed the GOP of a candidate in Texas's 22nd congressional district and presented an unusual opportunity to the Libertarian Party. The LP is now facing what some party insiders see as an almost-realistic chance at achieving something the 34-year-old old political party (America's third largest!) has never known: a seat in Congress. (1988 LP presidential candidate Ron Paul does currently sit in Congress, as a Republican, from Texas's 14th district abutting the 22nd.)

So now Bob Smither, a 60-year-old self-described "semi-retired" electrical engineering consultant, a former Goldwater Republican who felt his party left him and glommed on to the Libertarian Party in its first year of operation, 1972, has the weight of decades of party expectations on his shoulders. He is up against Democrat Nick Lampson, himself a former congressman, in a district that gave John Kerry a paltry 36 percent of the vote.

Smither is bearing up well, and isn't nearly as triumphalist as you might expect: "Well, it certainly is a change in circumstance," he tells me. "I got into this for basically the same reason many libertarians decide to run [for office], to get libertarian ideas out there. And now the opportunity to talk is much greater and that's a good thing. But the concept of actually winning? I don't know how seriously to take that. There are certainly some good signs that I will do better than Libertarians in this district, this area have done before." If the record of other LP candidates running against only one other major party candidate is used as a benchmark, Smither could never venture beyond his front porch and still collect 15 percent or so of the vote.

But what's on the minds of many LP activists and leaders, from the national office to the state party to its National Committee, is making sure the party faithful unite and ensure Smither outperforms expectations—mostly through doing serious retail politics more diligently than the average LP candidate, and corralling volunteers for serious shoe leather precinct walking, brochure-passing, and sign-posting.

Both state and local parties are restricted in the ways they can actually spend money on helping the Smither campaign, But in an interview with Shane Cory, the national LP's executive director, and John LaBeaume, its national campaign coordinator, I learned that the LP has begun consulting with the Smither campaign, figuring out legal ways to encourage donations and volunteers in his direction, working on message-crafting and voter awareness with his campaign team (which was nonexistent until this latest no-Republican wrinkle), and figuring out ways to help him tap into existing potential volunteer pools of Libertarian Party member and voters in his area.

The Smither campaign will probably work best, LaBeaume and Cory tell me, if he can be positioned, while not violating libertarian principles, as the only real conservative choice in the campaign because of his small-government fiscal and economic beliefs. Smither is no unknown in his community; his daughter was abducted and murdered many years ago, and in response Smither launched the Laura Recovery Center, a local group dedicated to causes related to missing and abducted children.

It's an interesting year in Texas for political mavericks. The LP's LaBeaume reminds me that many voters' straight-ticket instincts have been shattered, with comedic country singer Kinky Friedman polling at 20 percent in his race for governor. Republican governor Rick Perry is struggling to hit 40 percent in this state that gave President George W. Bush 61 percent of its 2004 votes.

No official polling has been done on the Lampson v. Smither dustup, but the national LP office has been making informal calls to Republican primary voters testing awareness of Smither, and say they've found up to 64 percent expressing at least a willingness to consider a Smither vote.

Charles Kuffner, a Democrat-leaning blogger who specializes in Texas politics, tells me that he too might have entertained high expectations for Smither before the meeting last week in which the fractious local GOP decided to close ranks behind one write-in choice: the singularly difficult to write in (especially so, considering the computer click-wheel system for voting in Texas) Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, a Houston City Council member.

Now, Kuffner surmises, "I do think still that Smither will peel votes away from people who might otherwise have voted for a Republican. But he still faces the same problem that any non-major party candidate does: straight ticket voting on half the ballots cast." While Smither has won more press than the typical LP congressional candidate, no one ever went broke underestimating the mainstream media's disinterest in the LP and its goings-on.

The Republicans' final consideration of a Smither alliance came during that meeting of precinct captains in which Sekula-Gibbs was anointed. Smither roamed outside the meeting, leafleting about why the GOP should help him and thus help themselves—he vowed to caucus with Republicans and vote for speaker with the GOP, a concession that could seem very valuable to the GOP indeed in January. Inside, DeLay himself was telling the assembled Republicans that Smither—who knows Lampson through work on missing children issues—was a mere plant for the Democrats.

Years of defeat have hardened even the most dedicated professional LPers. One such high-ranking LPer noted merely that if Smither pulled off a win, he'd just get voted out in 2008, when there will be two other major party options. (That promise, in fact, is one reason some LPers offered to encourage the local GOP to line up behind him rather than pursue their quixotic write in campaign—and what a wonderful development it is for a Libertarian to be able to tell a Republican to cut the shit, they don't have a chance, and are just going to screw it up for a satisfactory candidate who does.)

And while the Smither campaign has amassed a war chest of nearly $10,000, most of it since the no-Republican development, that still isn't much, nowhere near the couple of hundred thousand the national party hopes he can gather, and thinks he will need. Somewhere, somehow, more libertarians with big pockets need to get excited about Smither's chances.

Smither has lucked into his status as the LP's apparent great Texas hope; until two weeks ago it was their 2004 presidential standard bearer Michael Badnarik, who has assembled (and mostly spent) a amazing $350,000 plus for his congressional campaign in Texas's 10th congressional district. Badnarik has temporarily lost the spotlight, to the extent any LP candidate ever has a spotlight, and as of his last FEC filing has only about as much money on hand as Smither (though $50 thousand of that has arrived since the last filing at the end of June). But sometimes excitement about a party's prospects can feed more excitement, and some Texas LPers expressed hope that both promising campaigns can feed off the positive aura of the other.

Of course, that pleasing aura can turn dark if it doesn't end up working out, and we should remember that the theory that the LP does poorly because it doesn't get its message out enough is still largely untested—it may well be that the more the voter understands what an LP candidate stands for, the less likely they are to vote for him. Smither himself admits that the anti-drug war stance that was highlighted on his first campaign brochure (currently on his Web site but soon to be replaced with a newer one, he tells me) probably wouldn't wow too many voters in the 22nd, but he hopes his support of the Fair Tax (a national retail sales tax to replace most existing taxes) and general restriction of government to acting, and spending, only when constitutionally authorized to do so, will. After all, that latter stance has kept Ron Paul riding high in Congress for a decade now. But Ron Paul has the countless benefits of that "R" after his name on the ballot.

Texas LP executive director Wes Benedict warns that getting too excited can have its dangers for parties such as the LP. "What I tell people is, we are still a small party and we need to work to grow it. There is a risk of creating expectations that are overblown. I do think there's a concern there if you run around telling people you are going to win and end up getting 4 percent—that can be demotivating." Texas has two examples of unusual, and unusually positive, circumstances: A Smither with no Republican opposition, and a Badnarik who has raised more money than his Democratic opponent. These are certainly scenarios worthy of some hearty cheering for LP partisans. But the LP's supporters are going to need to rise above fears of disappointment to take advantage of them. Overly excitable and unrealistic expectations can be unhealthy for a third party. But lack of excitement can be fatal as well, Bob Smither, with only $10,000 to spend as the election draws near, can attest.

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