From Election 'Spoilers' to Weaponized Libertarians

Major-party candidates love blaming libertarians for the consequences of their own failings.


Robert Sarvis
Robert Sarvis

At his post election press conference the day after their electoral sweep, President Obama announced that "Republicans had a good night." On FOX's The Five, token Democrat Bob Beckel admitted "We got our asses kicked."

And yet, with all that success, Republicans spent a good part of November 5th complaining about Libertarian spoilers.

Starting Wednesday at 7:30 am at the monthly Leadership Institute (LI) conservative breakfast (technically in Arlington, Virginia, a few zip codes outside of D.C., but still inside the Beltway) the caterwauling began. Held the first Wednesday of each month, LI has had a somewhat libertarian-leaning tinged breakfast series this year, with Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and the executive director of the campus free speech group F.I.R.E. (Glenn Greenwald hasn't appeared yet.) Perhaps the staff of the Leadership Institute did have a crystal ball, as they had scheduled fabled dark wizard of the right, Grover Norquist, to be their post election day speaker.

The breakfast regulars include mainly Virginia tea party, GOP, and Ron Paul folk—many there had gnashed their teeth just a year ago at the obvious (in their minds) Democrat-funded plant, Robert Sarvis (pictured), whose Libertarian gubernatorial campaign in 2013 had, they thought, denied Ken Cuccinelli the governorship. And here they were a year later, burning over Robert Sarvis running for Senate and getting 2.5 percent of the vote, much less than his 6 percent in the 2012 gubernatorial race, but much more than the slim difference this year between Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Ed Gillespie.

One audience member put a question to Mr. Norquist—a Capitol Hill resident who did, however, endorse Virginia Libertarian Congressional candidate Jeffrey Carson, because he was "running in a race the GOP couldn't win"—about how to deal with Libertarian spoilers. Norquist—whose mission at Americans for Tax Reform is to assemble a tax limiting, budget cutting, "leave us alone" coalition that keeps social conservatives, libertarian independents, Republicans, and anyone else he can lasso, working together—answered by proposing some type of negotiations over an anti-compete contract: the GOP in each state should agree with the Libertarian Party about letting them run in some one or two races without a Republican challenger, if they will then promise not to run in any others. He claimed this had worked once in a Nevada.

Fortunately no one from the Antitrust Division was at the breakfast, so Norquist may not be prosecuted for punitive damages, and Americans for Tax Reform may not be forced to split into several competing organizations. But his suggestion won't work in most states, and certainly not in Virginia. Virginia ballot access law condemns Libertarians, and other new parties, to spend tens of thousands of dollars in every election, and thousands of volunteer hours, collecting signatures just to get each candidate on the ballot until they have a statewide contender who gets 10 percent of the vote. Republicans (and Democrats) created that law, not Libertarians. Only Republicans and Democrats in state legislatures can change it.

Next I attended a pre-lunch meeting of major conservative and Republican activists. The question of Libertarian spoilers rose again (even without Ann Coulter in attendance), with the crowd angry that Libertarians dared to threaten their sweep in North Carolina, Virginia, and other states. Two voices slightly calmed them with some information. Northern Virginia GOP activist James Parmelee said he had actually examined Sarvis ballots back in 2013, to see whom Sarvis voters supported for Attorney General, and they split equally for the Democrat and the Republican. Journalist John Fund, co-author of Who's Counting?: How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk, also weighed in, saying he'd studied the issue at length and Libertarians draw equally from Democrats, Republicans, and people who otherwise would not vote, unless the Republicans run "a real turkey." (In his view Libertarians are the scavengers of the tea party electorate.) Norquist concurred, saying whenever a Republican supports a new tax this taints the whole GOP and turns voters away, who then conclude there is no difference between the two older parties.

In fact, Rand Paul may have actually been a spoiler for Libertarian candidates, as he campaigned actively in almost every state for GOP contenders, second in ubiquity only to Chris Christie, the head of the Republican Governors' Association. Rand Paul's stock in trade is to announce that real libertarians support the GOP candidate he campaigns for, not the Libertarian candidate—even in states like North Carolina where the Republican nominee Thom Tillis was not his pick in the primary. Paul is trying to assemble an army for 2016, and so the enemy of his enemy is his friend. Tellingly, Libertarian candidates' performance in 2014 wasn't as good as it had been in 2012 and 2013.

But Rand Paul may need to educate his new troops if he wants libertarian-leaning voters to vote for them more than once after this cleaning of Obama's clock. Libertarians have already started identifying wets and statists among the newly elected Republicans. A case in point, Libertarian Party national HQ political director Carla Howell (a former Massachusetts LP candidate), pointed out to me that newly elected Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker (who presents himself as a libertarianish, fiscally conservative/socially liberal William Weld protege) supported Romneycare (because it provided government subsidies to the health care company where he was an executive) and opposed a popular tax cutting initiative she shepherded onto the ballot.

The major parties are moving beyond their decades old strategies of keeping Libertarians out of debates and attempting to keep them off the ballot. This year saw the rise of a new strategy, weaponized Libertarianism, whereby Democrats and Republicans promote the Libertarian to voters otherwise likely to vote for their major party rival, with Democrats paying for mailers in an Arizona Congressional race, and Republicans paying for TV spots in the Wisconsin gubernatorial campaign and the North Carolina senatorial race. Libertarians have been underfunded for years, spending far less dollars-per-vote than the well-funded major parties. While Democrats and Republicans pass the point of diminishing marginal returns, shoveling cash into ads, mailings and signs even as voters are fatigued or resentful of having to see their candidates constantly on TV and radio and in their mailbox, Libertarians frequently find in the days after an election some voters didn't even know that they were on the ballot. The rise of the outsider funded "weaponized" Libertarians may finally begin to change that.

And Libertarian "spoilers" may be here to stay.