Donald Rainwater, the Libertarian Party's (L.P.) candidate for governor of Indiana, has racked up some unprecedented polling numbers for a Libertarian in a race in which both major parties are running candidates. The 57-year-old Navy veteran and information technology professional hit as high as 24 percent in a Change Research poll back in September.
While that very high result was an outlier, Rainwater has in the past week polled at 14 percent (in a Ragnar Research Partners poll) and 15 percent (in a Cygnal poll). Previous Libertarian candidates for governor in Indiana earned 3.2 percent of the final vote in 2016, and 4 percent in 2012.
The secret to this unusually high polling for the L.P.'s candidate seems to be voter backlash to incumbent Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb's reaction to COVID-19, seen by Rainwater and many voters, according to local media reports, as unduly authoritarian. Rainwater said in a phone interview yesterday that, "during the pandemic year [Holcomb] has been able to declare an emergency and then he has ruled by executive order without bringing the General Assembly into the conversation."
Holcomb's COVID-19 reaction included "threatening mask mandates with criminal penalties, then he backed off that when his own party's attorney general said you can't do that," Rainwater says. He slammed Holcomb for trying to designate Easter church gatherings as nonessential. Rainwater thinks individuals should make their own choices about protecting themselves and others from the risks of COVID-19, without forced government shutdowns of businesses or gatherings.
In general, Rainwater accuses the Republican incumbent of being "really out of touch with how to govern with the consent of the governed," chiding him as well for fee and tax increases. When voters saw that, "they looked around to see if anybody is actually talking about limited government and preserving the Bill of Rights," leading them to Rainwater and the L.P.
"I don't think there's anything special about me," says Rainwater, who got nearly 40 percent of the vote in his 2019 run for mayor of Westfield, Indiana, against a Republican incumbent. "There's something special about the message of limited government and government actually safeguarding individual freedom and rights. In the state of Indiana, I believe the situation that has transpired due to the pandemic has shone a very bright light on what is wrong with big government. There are a lot of people just tired of the status quo and tired of the government picking winners and losers and making decisions about who it's OK to sacrifice in order to project somebody else. That has caused people to start looking for that limited government option."
Rainwater's campaign website issue page is strongly against various taxes, including the personal income tax, residential property tax, and yearly vehicle registration fees, all of which he would like to ax. His first L.P. run, which was for the state Senate in 2016, was inspired by his view that Indiana's Republicans were insufficiently anti-taxation.
Rainwater says Indiana's existing 7 percent sales tax ought to be enough to fund the things a state government needs to do. "We need to focus on better government, which means we need to upgrade and modernize and not just 'modernize' in word but physically do the work of updating processes and systems within state government, many of which are decades old," he says, "and make government more cost-effective, and do that within the context of not eliminating any services that citizens currently expect from state government."
Rainwater also emphasizes that three states surrounding Indiana have legalized cannabis for medicinal or recreational adult use, and he strongly wants Indiana to join them. In a legal cannabis environment, Rainwater says, "the agricultural, manufacturing, and retail possibilities for Hoosiers are going to be significant, and that will generate additional sales tax revenue."
The organization that runs the state's political debates has long been friendly to third parties, Rainwater says, so it was not unique that he participated on an equal basis with the incumbent and his Democratic challenger Woody Myers in virtual debates twice. An online poll conducted by WEHT Eyewitness News asking who won one of the debates had Rainwater receiving 187 out of 203 votes cast.
Rainwater's high polling helped spur an unusually large amount of fundraising, a majority from out-of-state libertarians wanting to see results worth bragging about. He says he's pulled around $250,000, "and spent near all of it," which allowed him to pay for radio and TV commercials. (Holcomb raised over $10 million.)
Volunteers have crowdsourced funds for billboards. With door-to-door campaigning not as prominent as in a normal year, his people are contacting voters via web messages and phone banking for getting out the vote. Rainwater is thrilled that he can make a video of him saying things once and reach audiences far larger than would ever show up to a physical event, thanks to virtual avenues.
"We are getting support from traditional Republican voters and traditional Democratic voters," Rainwater says, guessing his pull is roughly 70-30 between the two major parties. "People who don't normally look at Libertarians are looking at Libertarians. I get emails and Facebook messages all the time from people who say, 'I voted this way all my life, but now I look at your campaign, and I think I'm more Libertarian than whatever it is I was voting for before.'"