Making Bank Over a Dime's Worth of Difference

From Washington to Texas to Connecticut, the Libertarian Party fights on


While you wouldn't know it from conventional media coverage and polling, many voters have more than just the Democrats and Republicans to choose from on Election Day tomorrow. The libertarian-minded have, in most jurisdictions, the option of pulling the lever for candidates from the Libertarian Party. While it is pretty much certain, as always, that no Libertarian will be winning any governor's chairs or federal congressional seats, a handful of LP races are notable for various reasons—from money raised to attention won in debates to even, on the state legislative level, some possible victories.

Herewith, a survey of some of the more interesting developments in LP campaigns in this offyear election, gleaned from surveying active LP-conscious blogs and interviews late last week with various LP watchers, insiders, and candidates.

*Texas. The state of Texas has two House races that have had the Libertarian world abuzz—2004 LP presidential hopeful Michael Badnarik in the 10th district and Bob Smither, running for Tom DeLay's old 22nd district seat—with no Republican on the ballot.

Badnarik's distinction is a stunning war chest—he's spent what is probably a record for an LP congressional candidate, $423 thousand—about 10 times what his Democratic opponent has spent. However, despite talk in his fundraising trips early this year of an actual victory, he's polling single digits, and has not managed, despite all his money, to run any TV ads. Many LP rank-and-filers are grumbling about where all the money has gone (with only radio ads and one billboard—featuring a smiley face and the message "smile if you love liberty"—in media play). As one Texas LP higher-up told me, it seems as if the campaign started off spending, in terms of office and staff, like the $2 million dollar campaign it dreamed of becoming rather than the—still amazingly impressive—roughly half a million campaign it turned out to be.

This left it with little to show for all the money but office and staff. With little in the way of press, and no public debates that included the Republican incumbent, Badnarik did win a weirdly worded endorsement from the University of Texas's Daily Texan, which declared that "It seems clear that Badnarik would be easily swayed by his constituency to make certain things happen…we support Badnarik and his over-the-top Libertarian ideas." Still, given the money he's raised, anything less than a 20 percent showing will be a stunning disappointment. On the LP's own "candidate tracker" page—which measures candidate momentum based on a number of variables, including media, money raised, polling, and time spent campaigning—Badnarik is currently coming in sixth.

Bob Smither, meanwhile, despite running a right-leaning campaign in a largely Republican district without a Republican opponent even on the ballot, with endorsements from former GOP congressman Bob Barr, and generating more buzz than most LP campaigns ever get, managed to raise only $38 thousand as of his mid-October FEC filing, is also polling only single digits, and also seems geared up to become just another missed opportunity for the LP.

*Connecticut. Up in Connecticut, 4th district congressional candidate Phil Maymin, a Russian immigrant, Harvard-educated, quantum computation expert and hedge fund manager, got himself on Tucker Carlson's MSNBC show because Carlson dug his comedic TV ad playing off lack of public understanding of the LP and the ridiculous "I approve this message" campaign finance requirements. The ad shows him receiving a massage from an uncomprehending would be voter, who asks him: "You're a librarian? You're Joe Lieberman?"

Still, he's gotten little love from local press—Nexis only comes up with two mentions of him in the state's biggest paper, the Hartford Courant, and one was merely to make a snide comment about a candidate throwing a press conference with few attendees. Maymin does complain that, although his hardcore anti-Iraq position has, in his estimation, led both his opponents, incumbent Republican Chris Shays and Democrat Diane Farrell, to become more anti-the Iraq occupation, he gets little attention or credit from media. Even when he appeared in a debate with his opponents, he tells me, a long TV report on the debate managed to never mention him, even though he was visibly standing there.

He is running on two main issues: low taxes and getting out of Iraq, both of which resonate in his Connecticut district, which has a median per capita personal income nearly twice the national average, and is in a state where Democratic primary voters chose antiwar Ned Lamont over pro-war incumbent Joe Lieberman. As with most of the LP campaigns that have gotten any traction whatsoever, the simple application of basic retail campaigning—door hangers, yard signs, door-knocking—seems vital to whatever success Maymin ends up having, and are the sort of efforts all too often ignored by the LP's often merely paper candidates.

*Washington. LP Senate candidate Bruce Guthrie in Washington state got in a televised debate with his opponents by meeting the stated criteria from TV station KING-5. He did this by the clever expedient of mortgaging his home and loaning his own campaign the nearly $1.2 million needed—though he's still not polling particularly well, with only around 3 percent saying they are willing to vote for a third party candidate. (For Wyoming House candidate Thomas Rankin, appearing in a debate with his major party candidates got him an angry "If you weren't in that wheelchair, I'd slap you in the face" from Republican incumbent Barbara Cubin when he slammed her for taking money from disgraced Tom DeLay—and has also gotten him polls that show him within spoiler range.)

Still, Guthrie's debate performance got him on his opponents' radar screens, with positive results. Republican Mike McGavick, in an apparent attempt to peel antiwar voters away from incumbent Democrat Maria Cantwell, has been running ads that explicitly mention Guthrie and the Green candidate as being more purist against the war than Cantwell has been—a move that Guthrie assures me was not coordinated with McGavick.

Guthrie's, he says, is the first statewide campaign for the LP in Washington state that has hired a fulltime campaign manager and office space and done the full range of campaign 101 basics—yard signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and TV ads, on which he's spent around $10 thousand, including a series of amusing spots mocking Republican and Democratic voters' ignorance of their own candidates stances by visualizing actual interviews with confused voters as coming from the mouth of paper-bag puppets. The ads show that even when a typical voter is confronted with the fact that their party's candidate does not stand for what the voter does, they still intend to vote for them—and advises such voters to not be puppets of the major parties. Guthrie has, mindful of his potential constituency, run to his opponents' left with a campaign emphasizing peace, drug and marriage freedom, and anti-Patriot Act sentiment.

*Georgia. The LP has always been more of a presence in Georgia than other states—it forced a runoff in a Senate election there back in 1992, which Republican Paul Coverdell ended up winning—and has long been included in public debates there. That advantage, and others, has LP gubernatorial candidate Garrett Hayes polling at 8 percent, with a strong chance that he will succeed in throwing this year's gubernatorial race into a runoff as well. This with a campaign emphasizing educational choice and eliminating the state income tax and spending only around $10 thousand—with no yard signs or billboards, merely some cable TV ads and as much retail campaigning as Hayes can manage around his day job as an IT consultant.

*State legislative races. According to longtime ballot-access maven Richard Winger, this could be the most-vote-getting off-year election for third party candidates since 1914, with prospects of up to five house legislative seats going to straight third-party candidates. Vermont has some interesting prospects of some Libertarian-Republican fusion candidates (fusion, which some states allow and some don't, means appearing on the ballot as the candidate of more than one party) winning—but despite widespread blog reports of up to five such candidates, Vermont Libertarian Party state chair Hardy Machia assured me there were really only two official candidates on the ballot with both LP and GOP listings, him and David Atkinson, because of some late paperwork filings with the Secretary of State. Still, three other state house candidates, Bob Wolfe, Benjamin Todd, and Jeff Manney, while technically on the ballot only as Republicans, are LPers as well. Machia's main campaign issues, he tells me, are capping property taxes and saving Vermonters money on health insurance by allowing them to buy it from out-of-state providers. Because of the size of his district, he could win with as few as 1,500 votes.

In Indiana, a campaign-conducted poll for right-running LP state House candidate in District 54, Rex Bell, has him polling at 33 percent, with the Republican slightly ahead at 35 and the Democrat behind at 31. Bell, who has emphasized property taxes in his ads, thus seems to have the most likely chance of winning the LP something it currently has none of, a seated member in a state legislature. Indiana LP executive director Kyle McDonald says that Bell has knocked on every door in his rural Southern Indiana district twice, and credits this sort of dedicated retail politicking, and the candidate's good standing and reputation in his community (his wife is an elected LP judge in the area) with his good prospects. One of his opponents is apparently doing a push poll in which Bell is not included as a choice—and accidentally called Bell himself during the poll. McDonald thinks someone is running scared—Bell could win, given his district's size, with about 8,000 votes.

*If they can't win, at least they can beat the spread. A couple of cases where this seems a good possibility now—although which party the LP will end up "spoiling" things for is uncertain—is Phil Maymin's race against incumbent Chris Shays in Connecticut where things currently look like a tossup, and (a much longer shot) the Arizona Senate race, where Libertarian Richard Mack had been polling within the margin of error of Republican incumbent John Kyl's lead over Democrat Jim Pederson (which also means within the margin of error of zero).

While it is certainly far from likely that the LP will do this often enough to be credited/blamed with losing the House or Senate for the Republicans, it would be a delicious—and possibly deliciously dangerous—prospect for the LP. While still a fabulous long shot, it's the closest the LP could come to being a significant political player this year.

But who said being a "significant political player" is what third party politics is all about? Given campaign finance laws and our first-past-the-post electoral system, actually winning offices is always going to be a mug's game for third parties. It may be, as I've posited elsewhere, that third parties are best looked at as consumption expenses—or, as Bruce Guthrie told me, "the reason I'm involved in political activism is because it's fun."

That attitude, however realistic, aggravates a lot of people who want the LP to be an effective force for political change, some of whom are pleased by new signs of seriousness from the LP. The LP on a national level is trying a new technique this year, a web based phone bank called Ballot Base, whereby LP volunteer from across the country can do get out the vote calls via home phone or Skype-style Internet phone services with a pre-written script, and report info back to national HQ regarding what lists are doing better or poorer for them.

The LP credits Ballot Base with some of the primary victories for fusion candidates in Vermont earlier this year. They are using it in the days before the election on races in Texas, Colorado, Indiana, Vermont, and Connecticut, and have gotten up to 75 volunteers working the phones, making over 10,000 calls—a start, if not necessarily a race-winning result.

LP boosters face a constant dilemma: burn out volunteers and candidates with unrealistic expectations of unlikely results, or allow ennui and hopelessness to completely sap their quixotic crusade of any energy whatsoever. The Guthrie attitude seems the most realistic: try to play on the same field as your opponents to the degree your time and money allow—but recognize that if it isn't fun, if fighting for liberty on your own terms within the electoral system isn't its own reward, if you can't be satisfied with the opportunities to spread your political message that LP campaigning allows, then you won't have the will to keep it up for long. Because there usually won't be any other reward. That doesn't mean that LP campaigning  can't play a noble role, by providing a means other than staying at home to express dissatisfaction with the big government trends of the two major parties.

Senior editor Brian Doherty (Bdoherty@reason.com) is author of This is Burning Man and the forthcoming Radicals for Capitalism.