Smither, Eh? Ex-cellent!

How a twist of fate gave a Libertarian candidate a fighting chance at Tom DeLay's seat


For all the legislative skulls Rep Tom DeLay (R-TX) cracked, for all the political careers he redistricted out of existence, his insistence on drawing out his recent ballot kerfuffle has done for one Texas Libertarian what the World's Smallest Political Quiz likely never quite could have managed: This November Bob Smither, a neophyte candidate in his first political race, will go mano a mano on the ballot as the only official candidate challenging Democrat Nick Lampson for DeLay's erstwhile seat.

"This race is certainly turning out a lot more interesting than I anticipated," Smither chuckled during a recent phone interview. If fundraising numbers are any indicator, Smither is barely an ant on David's shoe in the battle against Goliath. Republicans have sworn to raise a write-in challenge. But in an off-year election that is already shaping up as the weirdest in 12 years, Smither's race has shown just how weird things may get.

To recap: Last March a defiant DeLay, already under a Texas grand jury indictment, dispatched three challengers in the Republican primary. In April he resigned his seat. (According to Time magazine, DeLay waited to bow out until he beat his primary opponents because he considered them "gadflies and traitors.") Eager to run against The Hammer in his hour of disgrace, Democrats sued to keep DeLay on the ballot even as Republicans attempted to replace him with a candidate of their choosing. Both the Texas and United States Supreme Courts denied Republican claims that DeLay was Virginia's problem now, so last week DeLay asked the Texas Secretary of State to remove his name from the ballot sans any replacement. Adding to Republican woes, Texas election law stipulates that those who ran in the March primary cannot stand as write-in candidates.

Democrats are, of course, ecstatic. No write-in candidate ever won a House seat in Texas; the Republicans' A-Team is voluntarily ineligible; the B-Team is involuntarily ineligible; and the C-Team is relying on the kind patience of Texas Republicans who will have to copy names off a crib sheet by spinning a little wheel on eSlate digital ballots. Sweet revenge is tantalizingly close for Lampson as he sits on the verge of winning the seat of the man who helped hasten the end of his four-term Congressional career with a controversial redistricting plan in 2003.

Momentum is clearly with Lampson. Still, Smither believes a fiscally conservative libertarian might gain some traction by highlighting "common ground" in a heavily Republican district that already possesses some conception of libertarian politics thanks to its close proximity to Rep. Ron Paul's turf. Smither has pledged to vote for Republican leadership if elected, offering Texas voters "a chance to not install a vote for Pelosi" even as he warns that that same vote is "certainly not a vote for the whole Republican agenda, because there's a lot of it I don't agree with."

It's going to take more than ideas and compromise to win a nationally prized seat, though. According to the last published FEC filing Smither only has $1,356 cash on hand, compared to Lampson's $2,157,016. Likewise, with $157,814 and $30,061 respectively, Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace and Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, two probable Republican write-in candidates, are unlikely to roll over and let the Little Libertarian Engine that Could chug along unmolested to the finish line.

In a shining bit of realist rhetoric, Smither is encouraging Republicans to hold onto that bank until 2008 and come for his scalp then.

"I think write-in candidates realize they're doomed to lose and probably just setting themselves up for the 2008 election," Smither said. "The point I'd like to make to them is, 'Who would you rather run against in 2008? A Libertarian incumbent, who gets the kind of financial support most libertarian candidates get—hardly any? Or a Democrat incumbent, with all the money of the party machinery?'"

Smither, who officially joined Libertarian Party ranks in 1972, is comfortable with the label "Goldwater Republican," and says he might be more at ease with "Reagan Republican" if not for the ramping of the Drug War in the 1980s. An entrepreneur and consultant with a doctorate in electrical engineering, Smither uses an Alexis de Tocqueville quote as his email sig file: "The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money." His campaign theme, he says, is, "Every time we wander away from our Constitution we get in trouble."

Considering nuance isn't the modern American voter's best suit, it will be interesting to see how DeLay's former constituents view a candidate claiming to some degree to be a good ideological fit for them; who is personally pro-life, but would like to see any restrictions determined by the states; who expresses reservations about the constitutional basis of both the War on Drugs and the Iraq war; and who supports a national consumption tax to stop lobbyists from "gaming the system," rather than restrictions on campaign donations, which he calls "fundamentally unfair," "un-American" and "direct interference with our freedom of speech." Put another way, do Republicans remember the tenets of Goldwaterism in the Age of DeLay?

Finances have gotten somewhat better recently, Smither said. Brochures, signs and bumper stickers are on order, but the campaign still lacks the funds for a proper mailer. Despite these woes, he added, more Republicans are contacting the campaign every day. He honestly believes the Texas Republican Party could soon "come to its senses" and support him.

"My experience is the more choices and freedom you have in a situation, the more things just sort of work themselves out," Smither said, in perfect classical liberalese.

Then again, having one Republican choice eliminated doesn't hurt either.