Joe Miller earned the Libertarian Party (L.P.) its highest-ever vote percentage in a federal Senate race this week, with his 30 percent in Alaska.
Generally when an L.P. candidate gets into double digits it is because one of the major party's isn't contesting the race at all. But Miller impressively got this 30 percent L.P. total coming in second place against a Republican (winning incumbent Lisa Murkowski, 44 percent), with a Democrat (Ray Metcalfe, 11 percent), and an independent (Margaret Stock, 14 percent) far behind him. Miller beat the combined total of the Democrat and the 3rd place independent.
Miller pulled this off possibly despite the Libertarian label more than because of it; he was well-known to Alaskan voters, having been the official GOP Senate candidate in 2010.
In that race he famously was beaten by the incumbent Murkowski, who Miller exceeded in the primary by running a Tea-Party insurgent campaign. Yet in the general election she triumphed via write-in, a rare collision of dual near-impossibilities in modern politics: beating an incumbent and winning via write-in.
Miller did not start off this election season necessarily intending to contend with his old foe Murkowski again, but in September the L.P.'s original candidate for the Senate seat, Cean Stevens, dropped out and the Party substituted Miller, after what Associated Press reported as failed past attempts on the L.P.'s part to recruit him.
Miller's ability to win what must have been normally Republican votes is a vivid sign of major party disenchantment that the L.P. should try to further capitalize on, said Jon Watts, the Alaska state L.P.'s chair, in a phone interview this week.
It's an example of how "moving forward there's a huge opportunity to enlarge our tent," Watts says. "As much as we talk about open borders," Watts says (Miller's Tea-Partyish belief in border walls was a sticking point with many Libertarians), "we want folks to come in to our Party, to assimilate and actually become libertarians and understand the non-aggression principle and self-ownership and negative individual rights and the whole platform."
Watts says he saw something similar, if not on the same specific issues, with the national presidential ticket's Gary Johnson and William Weld, that "they needed some Libertarian schooling, and that happened throughout the process." He invites more cross-party defections to the L.P. as long as "everyone understands the purpose is for them to come to us, not turn us into them."
Watts acknowledged the controversy in some parts over Miller's Libertarian bonafides; parts of his Party constituency "did ask these questions, isn't this a Tea Party Republican guy? What are you doing?"
Watts shared an endorsement memo he wrote in which he concluded that, even in social or criminal justice issues where Miller was not necessarily a consistent Libertarian on the federal level, most of his views and his beliefs about how at least the federal government should deal with them were sufficiently similar to Ron Paul's that Miller should qualify as libertarian enough for the Senate nomination.
Despite Miller's early high polling, the Libertarian National Committee (LNC) declined to help Miller's campaign with money; LNC member Daniel Hayes noted in an LNC business email list post that he's "not looking to enable a Republican retread just looking for ballot access that plans to caucus with the Republicans" though admitting he hadn't done a deep dive into Miller's specific beliefs.
Miller for his part said in a phone interview this week that he's been, even when he was a Republican, "talking about the corruption of the two-party system since the '90s" and is mostly happy with his new Libertarian Party home. Miller's web page, though, mostly refers to him as the "liberty candidate" without explicit L.P. branding.
Incumbent Murkowski, he says, is "part of the crony capitalist system, all about directing money to those close to her, a problem at the core of both major parties."
Miller says he managed to raise as much as $300,000 even in his short campaign season, most of it in-state and individual, though he's "not aware of any national libertarian groups" that got engaged in his campaign. Incumbent Murkowski raised over $4 million. (Miller and his old party tossed mutual accusations of technical federal election law violations at each other in the late days of the campaign.)
Miller is aware of differences of policy opinion on matters like abortion and marriage and drug laws, and offers a compromise that he thinks could be quite successful with the Tea Party right, calling himself a "federal Libertarian."
That means he thinks agreement can be found in a 10th Amendment approach that at least sees some issues as outside of federal power. (He is not personally willing to make that compromise on abortion, which he thinks as a 14th Amendment matter should be federally illegal. "If we are protecting liberties," he says, "life needs to be foremost among them.")
"We may have fundamental differences on how communities and societies should be organized," he says, "but those are battles best fought on the state level, with a purely libertarian approach on the federal one." Miller believes many on the Tea Party constitutionalist/traditionalist right may be able to support such an approach via the L.P., though he knows that can make for "weird bedfellows."
As well as he did with 30 percent, Miller was shocked he didn't do better. "Our ground game and canvassers often reported on multiple occasions that they didn't run into even one Murkowski voter, so it was really strange."
He is agnostic on whether the Libertarian Party label helped, hurt, or was neutral. If there was a negative aspect—Miller admits he does not know if there was, but if—he blamed it on "shenanigans at the national convention" like the stripping dancing national chair candidate James Weeks and vice presidential candidate William Weld "essentially endorsing Hillary Clinton."
Weld also, Miller points out, came to Alaska and endorsed his Republican opponent Murkowski.
All that "reflects a lack of discipline and a lack of maturity and lack of seriousness, and those are factors if the Party is going to grow, it can't conduct itself that way."
While not sure of his future as a candidate right now, and while dissatisfied with no national support from the L.P. and Weld's support for his Republican opponent, Miller stresses that "the state Party were solid, I can't thank them enough; though not very big, I really appreciated what their activists did on the ground, including outreach to native and rural communities."
[UPDATE: As pointed out by an opponent of Miller's within the Party, lack of support from presidential ticket to Miller's candidacy within the L.P. ran both ways, with Miller speaking in support of Trump at a Senate debate. See also this discussion of why to vote for Trump appearing on Miller's web page (though not bylined by Miller) and this positive discussion of "Why vote for Trump?" on Miller's Facebook page, as well as a statement on a Miller-promoting Facebook page that Miller himself was for Trump as a selling point to Republicans disenchanted with Murkowski, who was not for Trump.]