A New Dawn for the Libertarian Party

And the obstacles that are still in the way


The Libertarian Party has struggled with its identity since its founding in 1971. Technically America's third largest political party, the LP's political efforts have often made it seem like America's Third Largest Debate Club. The LP has elected only a handful of its members to state legislatures, and elected no candidates to federal office. In 2008, the party broke with tradition by nominating a carpetbagging repentant drug warrior, former Republican congressman Bob Barr, whose nomination over LP mainstay and perennial candidate for office Mary Ruwart nearly tore the party in half.

It appears the party has found a balance with the nomination of former two-term New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson for president and Judge Jim Gray of California for vice president. Both men are former Republican officeholders with high media profiles, both are committed libertarians, and both won their respective nominations at the Libertarian National Convention in Las Vegas by large margins and after only one round of voting.

Yet shortly after confetti cannons fired celebratory glitter directly in front of C-SPAN's cameras, the party resumed its internal squabbling, and a confusing and frustrating fight over who would chair the Libertarian National Committee lasted two days. Eventually, a candidate from the more purist wing of the party, Geoff Neale, won out, defeating two candidates from the more electorally focused wing of the party. LP delegates then cleaned house, replacing every party officer.

With the LP slated to have its highest profile presidential ticket since Ed Clark and David Koch ran together in 1980, hundreds more candidates running for lower offices across the country, and Americans more interested in libertarian ideas than ever before, the Party of Principle still has some questions it needs to answer. Can it qualify for the ballot in all 50 states? Can members stop fighting each other over who is more libertarian? Can the Libertarian National Committee do its job?

Can the LP qualify for the ballot in all 50 states?

Bill Redpath is the party's brain when it comes to ballot access issues, and he can say without blinking what the LP's problems are when it comes to getting names into the Diebold machine in states like Oklahoma, where not just Libertarians, but all minor parties are absent in the voting booth.

"It's because they have an extremely high, almost unattainable signature threshold for such a rural state," he said.

Will the party's recent infighting over its officers impact its ability to get on the ballot in all 50 states, a quadrennial goal for the LP?

Redpath doesn't think so.

"The infighting just shows that there is no consensus chair coming out of the convention. There was no convention for chair like there was for president with Gary Johson. I think we'll move forward and hopefully be on the ballot, if not on all 50 states than in the high 40s," he said.

Mark Rutherford, a former vice chair of the Libertarian National Committee and one of the candidates that came up just short in the race for national chair, views Redpath as one of the most important people in the party, and he's worried that the party does not have enough people like him. 

"One of things I've observed, and this is not critical of him but, we've been too reliant on Bill Redpath. I even said this to Bill once. I said, 'Bill, I am really worried what would happen if you got run over by a bus.' And I know he's tried to mentor people in the past but I think a huge emphasis needs to be put on people who get this book of knowledge from Bill in case Bill gets sick, sick of it, or far worse so we're not really between a rock and a hard place. He's excellent at it," Rutherford said 

Redpath, a last minute nominee for the national committee chair who lost on the fourth ballot, has high hopes for the Johnson/Gray ticket. He expects it will set record vote totals for the party, particularly if they can obtain nationwide ballot access. The party's record of late, though, is nothing to write home about.

The LP's national ballot access has fallen steadily since 1996 when it was on the ballot in all 50 states. In 2000 it was on the ballot in every state except Arizona. In 2004 the party was on the ballot in every state minus Oklahoma and New Hampshire. In 2008 the party failed to qualify for the ballot in over five states, plus the District of Columbia.  

In recent years independent candidates and the Green Party have been nipping at the heels of the party, but Redpath is steadfast in his belief in that the LP is superior.

"We have much greater ballot access, we have more funds, and we run a lot more candidates. Look, in five of the last six elections the Libertarian Party candidates, with the exception of 2006, for House got, collectively, one million votes. The last time a minor party did that was in 1912," he said confidently.

Redpath and Rutherford think the new officers the party has elected to the national committee may reverse this trend even though they may have slightly different priorities when it comes to allocating party resources. 

"I think this is a group of capable people that should have no problem obtaining ballot access," said Redpath.

Rutherford echoed his sentiments.

"[New LNC Chair Geoff] Neale is very capable, he knows what he's doing,'" Rutherford said.

Can the party put a lid on the infighting and immaturity?

The breakneck speed with which delegates nominated Johnson and Gray to the presidential and vice presidential slots slowed to a belly crawl when it came time to vote for Libertarian National Committee.

The problems started before the first ballot was cast for LNC chair. Proponents of "None of the Above" (or NOTA) wanted time to speak in favor of voting for neither of the two LNC chair candidates, incumbent vice chair Mark Rutherford and incumbent chair Mark Hinkle. (If NOTA could win more votes than either candidate, those candidates would be dropped from the ballot and candidate nominations for new LNC chair would be taken from the floor.)

After LP treasurer and acting chair Bill Redpath denied a NOTA supporter the opportunity to give a nominating speech for the non-candidate, incensed delegates spent the next several hours shouting, booing, and hissing, accusing one another of voter fraud, alleging that state delegations had been corrupted, and challenging one another's libertarian bona fides.

Several re-votes for LNC chair occurred on Saturday and Sunday—more than 10 total. Twice that number of votes were cast for motions to suspend the rules and start the LNC chair election from scratch. At one point, a besieged Redpath told convention attendees, "I am on the verge of self-combusting."

The fighting, Redpath said later, is something that goes on in all parties. "I think that there are different opinions. I just read in the Las Vegas Review Journal, earlier today, that there was squabbling at the Republican meeting in Reno between the Ron Paul delegates and the Mitt Romney delegates. I think that you set rules and within those rules anything is fair. There are differences of opinion, there was no violence, I saw no blood spilled. It just means that people weren't happy with the two main contenders for chair," Redpath said.

Concerned delegates punctuated the mayhem on Sunday with calls to end the divisiveness. Lee Wrights, who challenged Johnson for the presidential nomination, lost, and was then nominated to be LNC chair, also called for unity.

"Ah, my family," Wrights said upon taking the stage. "I have said, over and over again, I am not at war. I'll tell you something else, folks: We cannot even start thinking about stopping the wars outside this convention hall until we stop the wars inside these walls."

"All good conventions are a circus," Rutherford said after the close of the convention. "A lot of people get upset at these conventions. I know they are very tough and very difficult but…libertarians are disparate people. There's different ways to be a libertarian. It's a big tent. How else do you resolve things other than meet and have things out?"

Early Sunday afternoon, the last day of the convention, delegates elected Geoff Neale, one of Wrights' allies and a fellow Texan, to the LNC chairmanship in the sixth round of balloting. Wrights was elected vice chair of the LNC after one round of voting. The secretary and treasurer positions required two rounds of ballots each. The convention ended with every sitting member of the committee being replaced, and two of the party's most controversial and flamboyant members—Starchild and Wayne Allyn Root—being elected to at-large positions on the LNC. 

"I think the whole NOTA thing that happened in the chairs race, and Starchild being elected, still shows that there are sizable elements of people that are not mature enough to make tough decisions and sometimes accept that things aren't going to be the way they ought to be," Rutherford said.

After the proceedings adjourned, one delegate remarked that it was a good thing C-SPAN had left before voting on the LNC commenced.

Can the Libertarian National Committee do what it needs to do to get candidates elected?

Undergirding the prolonged election for the Libertarian National Committee is a supposed split between the ideological and political wings of the Libertarian Party.

The rift is long-standing, but nearly tore the party in half in 2008, when perennial candidate for office and libertarian stalwart Mary Ruwart, whose campaign was run by Wrights, lost to former Republican Congressman Bob Barr after six rounds of voting. Despite being new to libertarianism and having lots of big-government baggage, Barr was considered by some to be a more viable candidate due to his high media profile. 

Ruwart had her own baggage. A few weeks before the 2008 Libertarian National Convention, Dave Weigel reported that Ruwart opponents were circulating a quote from her book Short Answers to the Tough Questions, in which Ruwart defended child pornography by saying that "Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it's distasteful to us personally."

That kind of dogmatic commitment doesn't always make for smart politics, say critics of Ruwart's and Wrights' wing of the party, and can often curtail the compromises (such as Johnson's support for a revenue-neutral tax plan) that some party members see as necessary to win elections. That's why some delegates are worried that Wrights and Neale won't do as good a job campaigning as Rutherford. 

"If you want to put it in overly broad strokes, Mark Rutherford represents the planning approach. 'We're going to make sure this is a well-oiled political machine that runs candidates,'" said Travis Nicks, a Libertarian Party member from Colorado and a former fundraiser for Bob Barr. Nicks was the chair of the Colorado LP from 2005-2009, and is now the Colorado director for the Gary Johnson campaign. He said that his remarks reflect his opinion as a party member, not a party leader. 

"Lee represents the people who think we should show a pure, consistent message all the time. So if you have a candidate that says, 'Well, I'd start with just legalizing marijuana and get the public used to it in general,'" Nicks said, "the side that looks to Lee for leadership would say that that is wrong, that you should come out and say you would legalize all drugs, and lose the election on principle, rather than win the election with only a portion of the principle."

In other words, Nicks' concern isn't about philosophy—"Everyone in there," Nicks said, nodding toward the ballroom where delegates were voting for LNC chair, "is a libertarian"—but tactics.

"Do we play the role of Cato and the Reason Foundation,," Nicks said, "get people to the philosophy first and then present them with the party? Or do we play the role of getting candidates elected to office, and run candidates who can change policy?"

Nicks didn't speculate about the chances that Wrights and Neale would challenge the Johnson campaign on policy issues, but noted that Ruwart and others were less than supportive of Barr in 2008.

Reason spoke to Wrights and Neale after the two had both won their seats on the LNC and asked them about allegations that they were too ideologically rigid to provide adequate support to Libertarian Party candidates.

"I don't think it's an accurate characterization, because it says that I'm not interested in running candidates," Neale said. "My position is that the Libertarian umbrella represents a spectrum of thought that each candidate must tailor to his race and to his constituency. Neither Lee or I would argue that somebody took a radical enough position or too minimalist a position. The objective is to get people who understand libertarian objectives and principles into office so they can start implementing libertarian principles in our government."

Wrights simply shook his head. "We're too small to be chopping ourselves into smaller groups. And that's what both of us are really all about. Bring everyone together under the Libertarian umbrella."

Both men swore that getting Johnson elected was their top priority, and that the LNC would invest wisely in congressional, state, and local races.

"We'll do whatever we can to get ballot access in as many other states as haven't achieved it, because that serves not only the presidential campaign but all local and statewide races," Neale said. "To us the next objective is retaining election status. In my opinion we target support monetarily, either directly if it's available, or hopefully, mostly by pointing the donors at the best opportunities to leverage campaigns to retain ballot access."

Wrights added that the LNC will have to pick its battles. "We have to be very careful and pay attention to where our opportunities are and seize on those opportunities, and avoid the walls, if you will, of ballot access that are sometimes insurmountable."

As for what, exactly, the two will do while heading the LNC? "We as libertarians need to do things better, like polling our electorate, and we need to pass that information on to each individual candidate. Our national organization needs to funnel donors to them," Neale said.

"As I said as part of my presidential candidacy," Wrights added, "the Libertarian Party should be a service organization to the states, we should be asking how can we help, and then we have to determine what kind of help we can give."  

While disappointed that he lost, Rutherford doesn't doubt Neale and Wrights are committed to doing what they think is best for the Libertarian Party and the Johnson campaign. "Neale is capable. He knows what he's doing," Rutherford said. "If I have disagreements with him, it's on priorities, not, 'Oh, so this guy doesn't know what he's doing.'"

Garrett Quinn is the 2012 campaign correspondent for Reason, a blogger for the Boston Globe, and a weekend host for WRKO. Follow him on Twitter. Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter.