Gary Johnson

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.

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47 responses to “A New Dawn for the Libertarian Party

  1. 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?

    No, no, and no.

  2. The big news is the only 2012 ticket of Republican has been nominated well ahead of the Republican convention.

  3. Can the Libertarian National Committee do its job?

    No. The clusterfuck over voting for the LNC Chair was just more evidence of the dysfunction in the DC LP crowd.

    Fuck them. Not sending any more dues to National.

    1. Oh, and the bit where some fucking LNC staffer twice told me, the Chair of the LP in Hawaii, that I couldn’t sit in the front row with the rest of my HI delegation (both of them) at the Prez debate because I hadn’t purchased a fucking Gold package.

      The third time I walked back up from the cheap seats and sat there with my GF the staffer left me alone.

      Fuck the LNC.

      1. I hadn’t purchased a fucking Gold package.

        In politics, getting what you pay for is the rule, not the exception.

      2. The first evangelical libertarian I ever met wanted to sell me libertarian literature.

        Selling seating packages at libertarian events doesn’t surprise me in the least.

      3. I’m confused, were you taking something you didn’t pay for or did they invent the requirement on the spot?

        1. Dunno what all they put in the Gold package versus the TANSTAAFL, but that was the same fn seat I’d been sitting in all along the previous days while being charged $98 to work for free doing the LP Party’s business.

          If they put that in the Gold package, it was a retarded thing to do, because everyone appears to have wound up ignoring it and sitting with their delegation anyway, because it is more fun to watch a debate with your friends than strangers.

          When I tried to sit in the cheap seats after being ordered to do so, the people from the delegation whose seats I was sitting in politely asked me to move out of “their” seats, and were also kind of pissed when they heard why I was sitting there.

          1. The seats for the debate were for a separate event. If you want to sit front and center for Lenny Kravitz you have to pay…you don’t just get to sit where you want. Same principle.

            1. If that’s the case, they would have been well advised to take down all the signage advertising where each state delegation was supposed to sit — and sold tickets at the door allowing upgrades for the front row seats for everyone who didn’t read the fine print about what each package contained.

              If you went to a Lenny Kravitz concert where you paid for seats months in advance, and there was no assigned seating at the concert, and no one at the door telling you where to sit, and there was a sign up in the auditorium saying “Hawaii residents sit here” and you were a Hawaii resident and so you sat there, and then some officious person shooed you away and made you sit in an area marked “Indiana residents sit here”, and some Indiana residents sitting there politely asked you to get out of “their” seats, might you conclude that the outfit running this event was incompetent?

              1. Shorter: this incident was the last straw, where I decided that NOTA was the appropriate vote for the LNC Chair, since I’d already met Rutherford in person and found him to be a typical smarmy hard-to-take politician, and this incident reinforced my view that Hinkle didn’t know how to run anything.

                The debacle over the person Hinkle appointed to temporarily chair the LNC Chair vote confirmed that view — seriously, calling a new election that invalidates the first election when you have valid vote totals for each state, signed for by the state chairs?

  4. I am amazed at the Riggs’ and Quinns’ of the world who can convert their cynicism into optimism.

    I gave up on the LP a long time ago. I’ve left it to the Hopey McChangey’s of a libertarian bent to fix the world. I’ve resigned myself to the coming financial armageddon.

  5. Watching the Presidential nominations, I actually thought the LP might be getting less stupid. Wrights, to his credit, made an effort to play big tent, instead of taking his ball and going home after Johnson got the win.

    Then I heard about the LNC “elections”.

    1. Both Johnson and Wrights would have been solid choices for Prez. I voted for Wrights because the “fair tax” thing stuck in my craw (I told Johnson when he lobbied me on a cell phone call months ago that it should be called the “fair theft” proposal), but I’ll be happy to vote for Johnson in November.

  6. I remain cautiously optimistic. I might throw a buck or two at the campaign.

    1. I’m holding out for a libertarian superpac.

      Yeah, Reason, I’m counting on you to let me know when one gets underway.

      1. There are several PACs. Wes Benedict (former LP ED) has a PAC for candidates and Our America Initiative is a PAC that supports Johnson.

  7. Well, I’m just glad that for once there will be someone I can enthusiastically vote for. Johnson fails some purity tests, but I think that he is actually a candidate who would be an effective president without completely pissing off the whole country in his first term (which, let’s be realistic, is what a libertarian purist woudl do if by some miracle one got into office). Of course, he’ll get 5% if he’s lucky, but he’s the most plausible LP candidate since Ron Paul that I remember.

    1. As an outsider, I have to say the purity test aspect comes off as extremely childish. Using the drug war as an example, and a “Marijuana Only” (MO) and “All Legal” (AL) candidates as example, it wouldn’t be as if MO was _making_ heroin illegal, he was just being more realistic in the amount that can get done in any one push.

      Libertarians, around the country, get nearly a win if you get a leader who simply says “No” to all the changes proposed, letting no _new_ non-Libertarian bills pass.

      That, plus _one_ instance of a pro-libertarian bill passing is win. Not a giant, crushing, win, but a win, nonetheless.

      A lot of libertarians are very young.

  8. NO way man, I never thought about it liek that before. It makes a lot of sense dude.

  9. We went full retard on the LNC vote. The morons who were charging that there was an ‘evil cabal’ on the LNC of, get this, people who thought the LP should be a political party, are all gone. This LNC will have no excuses. There are no practical political types on this LNC, only those who think the role of the LP is to duplicate the efforts of Cato & Reason at the exclusion of winning elections.

    Rutherford was extraordinarily generous in describing Neale as ‘capable’, because Neale’s previous Chairmanship demonstrated the opposite. Worst Chair ever.

    1. You mean libertarians are wary of politicians because organizations with the sole goal of getting people elected sans principle will attract people who only want power? Color me shocked. I get your point, but it’s not an wholly unexpected sentiment.

      1. If this is what was going on, then there would be a legitimate beef. This has not been going on.

        My take on the winning side is that they want a party that appeals to themselves above all else. If it gets 0.1% at the ballot box, great! No need to bother learning how to win elections with pesky annoyances like building campaign teams or raising money to spread the message of candidates. Above all, be righteous because it is it’s own reward.

  10. Previously, the Libertarian candidate for president had zero chance of been elected.

    With Gary Johnson, the chances should double.

    1. 0(0)=0?

  11. In the end, the LP is going to have to replicate the strategy the evangelicals used in the ’70s and ’80s, which is to focus primarily on things like school boards and other lower profile local offices first. These are more winnable offices and can benefit from having a small group of committed supporters. The LP presidential campaigns should be seen primarily as publicity for the party.

    1. Agree! The state affiliates who are electing people are doing it at the local level. The others want to run in the sexy offices, infrastructure and land use bodies apparently no place for a Libertarian voice.

  12. It’s time for libertarians, ALL libertarians to look for Fellow Travelers and put the Litmus Tests on the shelves for a while.

    Fellow Travelers and Purity Tests


    Can’t we libertarians all get along?

  13. Why should I vote for someone who would put me in prison if I didn’t pay his 30 percent sales tax?

  14. Great article. Very positive outlook compared to my personal view of how the LNC shenanigans went (last half of saturday was ridiculously stupid). I wasn’t even in the room for all of Sunday…couldn’t take it.

    Vote Gary Johnson 2012

    1. I walked out of the Saturday session before it ended. Such a clusterfuck, and I had a hot GF texting me to come up to the room and fuck her. Not a difficult call.

      Caught a flight home early Sunday, so missed what transpired then — busy getting threatened with incarceration by the TSA at McCarran Intl.

  15. Hmmm … both are “former Republicans,” true, but Johnson was a “Republican governor” (as the office is partisan). Gray was not a “republican judge” or “republican US attorney,” because those positions aren’t considered “partisan” (at least, judgeships aren’t, here in California).

  16. “Both men are former Republican officeholders with high media profiles, both are committed libertarians”

    Well, Johnson has been a Libertarian for just a few weeks – anybody can be committed for that long.

    I wonder about his level of commitment when his campaign signs don’t even use the word Libertarian.

    Since I live in a state so lopsided politically that it doesn’t matter at all for whom I vote, I’ll probably just write in my own name – I’ve been a committed Libertarian for far longer than Mr. Johnson.

  17. NOTA happening wasn’t some political/philosophical split. It happened because many in the party were tired of the trainwreck the LNC was between 2010 and 2012 (even more than usual.)
    1. They had to charge a floor fee to delegates because they chose a bad deal for a hotel in order to break even.
    2. The LNC raised $250,000 to purchase a national HQ, tabled the plans, and has so far refused to refund donors that money as was promised.
    3. Hinkle thought the best avenue the LP should take is to try and sway the major parties, while Rutherford and his supporters wanted the LP to essentially become what the Republican Party claims it is.

    1. Goddamn. The association with Root really killed Rutherford’s chances. And yet, Root got re-elected to the LNC. Life is so cruel.

  18. 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.

  19. “It’s because they have an extremely high, almost unattainable signature threshold for such a rural state,” he said.

  20. Liberation party making some strong moves but the problems are not over yet.

  21. If the LP is a good example of what happens when libertarians are in charge, it certainly supports the thesis that government should be as small as possible. NOBODY can do it worth a damn.

  22. “It’s because they have an extremely high, almost unattainable signature threshold for such a rural state,” he said.

  23. It boils down to a protest vote. I registered Republican for Ron Paul, and will re-register Libertarian soon, but what is most benefit to the libertarian cause, writing in Ron Paul, or voting for Johnson?

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