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Libertarian State Sen. Laura Ebke of Nebraska Loses Re-Election Bid

Running a campaign that stressed small-government values over the Libertarian Party label, the incumbent was still unable to prevail.

Nebraska state Sen. Laura Ebke won office in 2014 as a Republican, but switched parties to Libertarian in 2016 because of her dislike for lockstep discipline in a party that she didn't think hewed to consistent small government principles.

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After coming in second in a three-way nonpartisan primary in May, with 33 percent for Ebke and 44 for Republican Tom Brandt, she lost to him tonight, 57–43.

Ebke was extraordinarily well-funded for a state legislative race in Nebraska. Due largely to big-money contributions from out-of-state libertarians, she raised nearly a quarter million, huge by Nebraska standards and more than twice Brandt's take. Her district, the 32nd, had around 22,000 potential voters—spread over 37 "towns and villages and a lot of farms," she said in a phone interview last month. Ebke is a college teacher, Brandt a farmer who had never before held office.

Ebke's campaign used electoral software from i360 to keep track of voters and their stated interests and concerns, allowing for such options as "if someone is tagged as being strongly pro–Second Amendment or whatever, we can target special last-minute letters or calls." As far as Ebke knew, "It's rare for a state legislative campaign to get this sophisticated, but we felt we needed to." She or her volunteers had knocked on about 3,000 doors as of a couple of weeks ago.

The Libertarian Party didn't put a lot of effort or time into Ebke's race, which seems fine with her. She wasn't stressing the party connection much in her campaigning or messaging; unless a voter directly asked her, she wasn't apt to bring it up. She says that she was dinged a fair amount for turning coat on the GOP in the primary, but not so much in the general election. The state Republican Party had preferred the third candidate who got knocked out in the primary to Brandt, she says, so she didn't see the string of Republican-funded mailers against her that dogged her in that primary. Brandt, in Ebke's view, is not himself hugely popular with the state GOP, being neither a supporter of Gov. Pete Ricketts nor a conventional small-government type—he's "for Medicaid expansion and for state funding for rural broadband."

Brandt's appeal, she thinks, was more an everyman farmer kind of thing, "wearing a T-shirt all the time and carrying around cinderblocks." At one of their two debates (she wanted to do at least three more public debates, but Brandt refused) he slammed her for being a mere academic vs. his working man.

While she didn't make a big deal out of her party affiliation, she found "a lot of voters know, and most don't care. Every once in a while, you find someone who tells me to go away at the door, that they 'don't like people who change their minds.' This is a fairly conservative area, and I'd focus on telling people I think government spends too much and regulates too much and those things make us less free. If people agree on that, the party is extraneous."

Her campaign manager, Asa Bryant, agreed in an interview last month that trying to sell a voter on the entire L.P. package was less useful to them in a local campaign than just trying to sell the candidate. So he advised Ebke not to stress the party label and not to use the term libertarian in her promotional material; Bryant thought that the party switch would end up "a neutral thing that doesn't help us and doesn't hurt us."

Ebke found on her visit to the Libertarian Party national convention—held at a very inconvenient time for candidates running local races, around the fourth of July—that too many Libertarians seemed more interesting in "fighting with each other about who's the real Libertarian." She adds that debates about, say, totally abolishing public schools were irrelevant to candidates trying to win state elections.

She had six people other than her doing door-to-door campaigning at least two days a week, some four or five a week. She had a professional campaign manager and consultant. Her team were more "Laura Ebke people" than L.P. people, finding that "the L.P. folk are very well-intentioned but many of them need training" in retail politics in a state like Nebraska, throwing around radical rhetoric when simple campaign messaging is called for. "They don't understand they don't have to be full-blown libertarians all the time," she says.

While the L.P. did "send out canvassing teams in the primary," in the general election there was not much coming from them. "They have shifted their efforts. We professionalized our team and they saw us as less needy." The state L.P. was occasionally good for volunteers, but they have no money for campaign support.

She did have teams of uncoordinated canvassers from Young Americans for Liberty on the ground for her, a group that more often supports liberty-oriented Republicans. The out-of-state money and volunteers became a Brandt talking point against Ebke.

Ebke clearly found aspects of contentious politics wearying and annoying, noting in a final pre-election note on her campaign Facebook page that she and her opponent both "have been wounded. And both of us will take a little while to heal. Competitive political campaigns tend to take on a life of their own, with supporters, consultants, campaign managers, and others pushing us in directions we might not go, were it not campaign season." This was likely a personal reaction to her campaign feeling it necessary to do some direct attacks on Brandt.

Prior to the election, Ebke wasn't prone to hyping her legislative priorities for her second term, suggesting those who did so tended to not understand the difficulties and complications of the committee process in the Nebraska legislature. But in her first term she shepherded a bill that is now being used as a national model for occupational licensure reform, which among other things makes it easier for those who may have spent time in the penal system to get productive work. On Facebook, she points out that in her first term she also

introduced bills that would completely eliminate some taxes (LB789 in 2018); bills which would significantly reduce inheritance taxes (LB 936 in 2016); bills that have passed which increase transparency and accountability in bonding (LB 132 in 2015). I've introduced bills which would protect your 2nd Amendment Rights (LB 184 in 2015, and LB 289 in 2015)....I also worked with a constituent in Lancaster County to pass (via amendment into the HHS priority bill) a law which now allows for mobile cosmetology and barber salons (LB 790 in 2018).

I have co-sponsored bills which would limit the ability of the state to violate your constitutional rights—including a bill (which passed) seeking to limit the ability of the state to seize assets without a conviction (LB 1106 in 20115).

In reviewing the bills that I've introduced and co-sponsored, I've not introduced or passed anything which would cost citizens more money (increase costs), and in some cases, my bills would actually decrease the tax burden on citizens. I'm proud of my record as a small government conservative, who has tried to protect your wallet, and your liberty.

That record, and her national support, were not enough for a win. I expect Nebraska will have reason to regret not having Ebke's unique viewpoint in their legislature.

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  • Jerryskids||

    She says that she was dinged a fair amount for turning coat on the GOP in the primary, but not so much in the general election. The state Republican Party had preferred the third candidate who got knocked out in the primary to Brandt, she says, so she didn't see the string of Republican-funded mailers against her that dogged her in that primary. Brandt, in Ebke's view, is not himself hugely popular with the state GOP, being neither a supporter of Gov. Pete Ricketts nor a conventional small-government type—he's "for Medicaid expansion and for state funding for rural broadband."

    Principles over principals with the keystone principle being that you have an (R) after your name, all other principles are negotiable. See also: Bob Dole, Arlen Spector, John McCain, Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, et al.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Brand recognition is a thing, as well as having an effective party apparatus. Politics always was and always will be a team sport.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    It sounds like she had quite the sophisticated campaign apparatus and yet she still lost. That is sad news.

    I was thinking last night, perhaps one potential strategy for libertarian candidates would be to focus on offices like State Auditor or State Treasurer, the equivalent at the more local level. They can very easily present themselves as being a 'neutral referee' fighting against the waste and graft of either of the two major parties. Plus, no one really cares what the State Auditor thinks about culture war issues like abortion or gun control, so it avoids having to unnecessarily alienate certain segments of the voting public.

  • JFree||

    It sounds like she had quite the sophisticated campaign apparatus and yet she still lost.

    Actually she brought her own campaign apparatus - and the LP brought nothing beyond that at the local level. She just happens to be the rare L candidate who understands that you actually need that to win. LP needs to build that apparatus BEYOND a particular candidate - and needs to understand how the D's and R's actually leverage existing organizations by essentially promising to represent them.

    The tough part for the L's is that Americans no longer belong to organizations. The ones that do exist have existed for a long time and the D's and R's have worked with them since forever.

  • JFree||

    As an aside - this election made me realize how prescient de Tocqueville was about individualism and civil association. Maybe what L's need to do is to try to restore civil association and stop focusing on 'the big idea'. There's a lot of pragmatic political stuff that can be advocated to this end - but it all looks very process-oriented (restoring local decision-making, forcing govt to allow civil associations to breathe, massively increasing the representation of govt so that it can no longer agree on how to do things itself, etc)

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