The Libertarian Party (L.P.) is showing signs of unusually encouraging midterm election results in November. This seems only natural for an era when both independence from major party identification and a general yen for libertarian ideas are growing.
According to estimates from longtime third-party expert Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, the L.P. looks on target to achieve a historic record in votes for a third party in a midterm election: over 2 million votes for what Winger defines as "top line" races. That's governor where applicable, federal Senate where it's not, and offices such as secretary of state or attorney general where neither governor nor federal Senate are in play for the party. The L.P., according to Winger, has such top-line candidates on the ballot in 37 states this year, its highest number ever for a midterm election.
Everyone from The Washington Post to USA Today to National Journal to Reason have noted some surprisingly strong early poll numbers for various L.P. candidates—though third parties that expect early polling to equal actual results on election day tend to be disappointed.
Still, the executive director of the L.P.'s National Committee, Wes Benedict, thinks that the surprisingly high 6.5 percent total won by Robert Sarvis in the Virginia governor's race last year (Sarvis is running again for federal Senate this year) marks a possible new age for the party. Benedict certainly credits Sarvis with attracting a new generation of candidates willing to put themselves through the often fruitless and frustrating wringer of running for office with the L.P.
Why are things different now? Benedict thinks the sea change in public attitude toward what used to be a "crazy libertarian thing," reducing or eliminating the drug war (at least on marijuana), has helped turn derisive laughter to a sense that these Libertarians were ahead of their time on an important issue.
The post-crisis bipartisan bailouts also opened voters' eyes to the essential sameness of the two major parties when it comes to widely despised crony capitalism, he thinks. And Benedict also points to sudden bursts in size and effectiveness of state affiliates in states such as Washington, Kansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi as helping the party field an unusually (but not historically) large total number of candidates on the ballot for all offices this year, around 750.
Benedict used to run a political action committee (PAC) dedicated to supporting L.P. candidates, Libertarian Booster, though it has gone into hibernation as he's returned to official duties with the national party. As far as Benedict knows, no other significant PAC money has gone into Libertarian races, which are as thinly funded as ever this year except for one outlier, Chad Monnin, running for a state* House seat in Ohio and spending at least $100,000 of his own money on his campaign. (The national L.P. tends to do no spending for specific midterm candidates but has, Benedict says, been relatively steady with about $1.2-1.4 million budgets for the past 8-10 years.)
Benedict recognizes that the Republicans, post-Ron Paul, have had a growing reputation for having a lively libertarian wing, though he thinks that's a double-edged sword for the GOP when it comes to winning libertarian-leaning voters. Benedict credits the Republican Party apparatus' crummy treatment of Paul fans in Louisiana with driving many Paul activists out of the GOP and into the Libertarian Party.
When the Republicans have the opportunity to use dirty tricks to keep Libertarian opposition off the ballots, they have done so in Illinois and Ohio. When they have the opportunity to bring forth their most prominent libertarian gun, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, to campaign for Republican candidates in states where L.P. candidates seem to be doing well (like Kentucky itself), they do so.
Still, the L.P. has some candidates who promise from early polling to do quite well and likely beat the spread between the Democrat and the Republican, thus shaping the outcome of the race.
Sean Haugh, federal Senate candidate from North Carolina
Haugh, who ran for this same office in 2002, is famous in the media as the pizzaman who is polling well beyond the spread between his major party opponents, incumbent Democrat Kay Hagen and Republican Thom Tillis, current speaker of the state House. Haugh is scheduled to appear in a public debate with his major party opponents tomorrow, and believes that both are "wildly unpopular—their only chances of winning is running against each other."
Haugh says the pizzaman thing is actually "an overwhelming positive for me—the fact I'm a regular working guy is very appealing to people." If accused of a lack of political experience, "look at the job performance of who we have now; they have experience in creating a mess." Political experience these days "should be a big black mark on your record."
As we spoke by phone on Monday, Haugh was driving many hours across the state from a campaign media trip back to Durham for his evening shift of pizza delivery, a job he says "I find a lot more enjoyable than I thought I would," particularly finding it a salubrious break from the stresses of campaigning.
Haugh is an old L.P. hand—his first political job was as paid petitioner for ballot access for the Ed Clark/David Koch run in 1980. He became disillusioned with the Party's seeming disconnect from electoral reality in the '80s, but in 1992 was pleasantly surprised to find the L.P. running candidates he saw on TV; most of them "actually showed up in a suit and talked about issues people cared about" and he became active again. In the past he's been chair of the state Party in North Carolina and run for various other state offices.
Haugh says his front-and-center message this campaign is "Stop all wars. I wouldn't say it's my single issue but it is one I'm totally focused on and it has implications for so many policy issues. The only solution the Republicans and Democrats have is more bombing campaigns, and our wars helped create even greater problems for us than when we first started." He strives, Haugh says, to cast the libertarian message "in a way where I'm not educating anybody, where I'm saying things that already appeal to common sense and what voters are already thinking." He believes most voters understand the fruitless waste of our foreign policy and the need to curb endless spending and debt.
Haugh has polled multiple times beating the spread between Hagen and Tillis (including one June poll at 11 percent, though lately his number has been smaller) and he's annoyed by the presumption that the libertarian vote should properly go to Republican Tillis. Any data about how the election would go if he weren't in it is flawed, he says, since the polling never allows for what he considers the natural reaction of a Haugh voter who couldn't vote for Haugh—not voting at all.
His fundraising has been tiny, around $8,000, but this doesn't worry him. The biggest difference between this year and his 2002 run, he says, is that "I don't have to explain to anybody what a libertarian is now" and that social media exists to cheaply and efficiently spread his message. He doesn't worry about paid media since "I have more earned media opportunities than I can handle right now" and generally suspects that most paid political advertising does little good for anyone but the vendors and consultants who make them. He even questions the value of the traditional campaign yard sign, which "from an environmentalist perspective I find just litter on the highways—I'm doing voters a favor by not cluttering up the streets."
Haugh was gratified that Republican big gun Rand Paul came out to support Tillis; just a sign that the Party itself recognizes the hopelessness of Tillis' position and thinks the libertarian-minded voter understands, despite the occasional Paul or Justin Amash or Thomas Massie, that the libertarian perspective is still "a minority in the Republican Party."
David Patterson, federal Senate candidate from Kentucky
Patterson is a police officer in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and noted in a National Journal profile the potential ironies of that—though he says he tries to issue less tickets than the average cop. His political consciousness was raised by Ron Paul in 2012 and he discovered he'd been, unknowingly, "a libertarian all my life" and connected with the state L.P. With his wife's approval, he stepped up to run for Senate when the Party needed a candidate and has found it "an incredibly positive experience" despite having to fit 20-30 hours of campaigning a week around a typical daily 4 p.m. to midnight shift at his police job.
Already serving the Senate from Kentucky is the very libertarian-identified Rand Paul, who has plumped for his colleague (and former enemy) Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Patterson has also polled multiple times matching or beating the polled spread between McConnell and his Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Patterson says spending and taxation are his biggest issues, though he is also one of 35 national L.P. candidates who signed a pledge to reduce, if in office, military spending by at least 60 percent. He says the U.S. has overextended itself overseas to our detriment, that we should strive to be more respectful of other nation's sovereignty, and the "only time we should step in if there's a clear and present threat to the United States", though he doesn't fully rule out situational humanitarian aid in cases like "earthquakes, tsunamis, or nuclear meltdowns."
Patterson also is running a financially-limited campaign—he thinks he's raised less than $5,000—and unlike Haugh he's been blocked from debates. He's filed a lawsuit challenging his exclusion from a Kentucky Educational Television debate, insisting the network deliberately and discriminatorily changed criteria to keep him out. He sees his surprising poll results as arising in part from voter belief that McConnell is just a skilled and insincere reader of public opinion, and that Grimes as a Democrats' biggest negative is "Obama—she's got 'Obama Democrat' as a slogan on her shoulder." Patterson thinks "personal voter interaction is more important than gold." If he can encourage everyone who already knows and likes his campaign to tell 10 friends, he says, and that if three of those friends are also sold, "we could be looking at 30 percent."
Does anyone ever hit him with the third party "spoiler" accusation, in a year when Republicans are fighting a tight battle to regain control of the Senate?
"Why is GOP control of the Senate so important?" asks Patterson. "Look at the last 16 years, where you had Republican or Democrat control, they are essentially the same. They will squabble like they are not but in reality they want the same things in a lot of areas. All I can say is having Mitch McConnell be majority leader in the Senate is something that will have absolutely no effect" that any small government lover should care about.
Adrian Wyllie, gubernatorial candidate from Florida
Wyllie, who runs his own I.T. firm and political radio network in Florida, was converted to the Libertarian Party via the "world's smallest political quiz" in the early '90s and became inspired enough to run for office by "frustration with the direction of the country and the growing usurpation of power by government, the loss of economic freedom and individual liberty got to the point I couldn't just sit around."
He's been running for governor since January 2013, has over 2000 volunteers, and has raised a little over $100,000 (still a tiny fraction of his opponents multiple millions on ads alone). Like Patterson, he's found it necessary to sue to try to get into a debate with his opponents, former Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist and incumbent Republican Rick Scott.
Again, his good polling (11 percent in one recent Quinnipiac poll) is likely linked to high negatives for both other candidates in voters' eyes. Wyllie says he finds many former Republicans telling him that "Republicans don't believe in small government anymore; only the Libertarians do. By the same token, Democrats will tell me that Democrats don't believe in civil liberties anymore; only the Libertarians do."
Wyllie's state-based concerns include eliminating common core and other federal interference in education, a 30 percent state budget cut, eliminating property taxes on primary residences, and lifting federal regulatory burdens on businesses that operate exclusively in Florida—inspired by the work of the 10th Amendment Center.
Florida is a huge and aggravating state to campaign in; Wyllie says he drove over 6000 miles in August campaigning, and expects to do even more in the next month leading to the election. He sums up the Libertarian message as "I want to keep government out of your wallet, your bedroom, and your business."
While his opponents ignore him publicly, Wyllie says he's caught wind of whisper campaigns accusing him of having once stripped naked during a protest at the state capitol. Not true, Wyllie says. Still, after running media for a 2010 L.P. Senate campaign, Wyllie says that the difference in positive awareness of libertarianism "is unbelievable, not only do people know the libertarian message they embrace it. I think it has a lot to do with Republicans and Democrats being who they are: the exact same party."
*CORRECTION: The article originally mistakenly stated Monnin was running for a federal House seat.