The most common criticism of the Libertarian Party is that it can’t win. It’s a brutal but not entirely unjustified complaint… the party can boast of being America’s third-largest, but you don’t win many elections by always placing a distant third.
It’s not always the case that Libertarians can’t win, though. It’s true that the party’s nominees have yet to win a statewide or federal office. But across the nation, there are elected Libertarian Party officeholders, and more importantly, there are real opportunities for increasing that number in 2018.
These opportunities come in a variety of forms: winnable races, but also strategic opportunities for other gains, like a high-profile campaign, or one that establishes ballot access for the party in a given state.
In no particular order and with the New Year upon us, here are eight key opportunities for Libertarians in 2018:
1. It’s A Wonderful Seat
Nebraska state senator Laura Ebke is one of the party’s rising stars. Elected in 2014 as a Republican to Nebraska’s unicameral and officially nonpartisan legislature, she switched her registration to the Libertarian Party in 2016, citing her disagreements with attempts to implement partisan vote-whipping by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Since then, Ebke has continued to accomplish important legislative work. She secured the passage of a bill to ensure Libertarian ballot access in Nebraska, assembled a bipartisan coalition for occupational licensing reform, and was elected by her colleagues to serve as the Chair of the important Judiciary Committee, handling all criminal-justice related bills.
Her re-election is not without opposition, however. Gov. Ricketts and the Nebraska Republican Party are bankrolling a challenger, anti-LGBT political activist Al Riskowski. The state GOP even sent a voter-intimidation “warning” to residents of the district, threatening criminal prosecution of anyone who showed up for Ebke’s free screenings of the holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life.
This move prompted much mockery in the state’s press, and seems to have only produced a backlash in favor of the popular local incumbent. But Ebke still needs help from Libertarians nationwide, particularly in fundraising to match the spending-spree that Ricketts is likely to go on for Riskowski.
Ebke’s re-election doesn’t just matter for Nebraska, either. By demonstrating that the Libertarian Party can defend its own incumbents, it could set off a domino effect of other liberty-minded state legislators ditching the GOP.
2. Phoenix Rises for Libertarian Party Chairman
As The Jack News covered recently here, the Libertarian Party’s national chairman Nicholas Sarwark is making his first bid for elected office in a special election for Mayor of Phoenix, Arizona. A unique combination of circumstances and local notability give Sarwark some recognition.
In a race that includes two Democratic members of the City Council, but no Republican, it is possible that Sarwark could make it into the top-two run-off in this officially nonpartisan election. An attorney and former public defender, Sarwark currently works at his family’s car dealership in Phoenix. Sarwark does enjoys some degree of name recognition from the car dealership, one of the oldest independent used car dealerships in the Phoenix area.
Phoenix is not a small city. As America’s fifth largest, it has more residents than many states. So this won’t be a cheap or easy race, and if looking at a real threat, Arizona Democrats won’t hold back. As the Libertarian party’s chief spokesperson during last year’s presidential campaign, Sarwark is uniquely positioned to call on a list of donors with whom he already has a relationship. He will need to pull in those resources, as a winning campaign is sure to cost well into the high six figures or beyond.
So far his campaign website shows that he has raised over $27,000 in online donations since announcing his campaign on December 5. That’s not yet enough, but it’s a good start and far healthier than what most Libertarian candidates can muster.
3. Go West, Young Party…
There are a few key geographic trends that serendipitously overlap in a particular region of the country. In a belt of states across the Mountain West, and adjacent parts of the Upper Midwest, popular alignment with libertarianism runs higher than in most of the country. A live-and-let-live frontier ethos makes fertile soil for Libertarians, and that shows in the vote totals for Libertarian candidates. Voters there are fiscally conservative, but relatively less socially conservative than other GOP strongholds.
There’s another factor that points to that region: some of the least expensive and easiest to win state legislative seats in the nation. Major-party candidates routinely earn a place in rural statehouses on campaign budgets measured in the thousands of dollars, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are the norm in larger, more expensive states.
That doesn’t mean Libertarians can waltz in and start buying seats at ten grand a pop. They need strong candidates: local community and business leaders with deep local roots. And running uphill as a Libertarian means more substantial opposition and a more closely contested campaign, so candidates should probably budget at least two to three times the average cost for a Republican or Democrat.
As we get into the Spring of 2018, it will be worth keeping an eye on states like Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. If viable non-incumbent Libertarian candidates for state legislatures arise anywhere, it will probably be in this part of the country. Elections that otherwise go uncontested by one of the two major parties can be particularly ripe for Libertarians to target in a two-way race.
4. The Libertarian Party’s chances in the Live Free or Die state
Rural New England: Vermont, Maine, and particularly New Hampshire, offer opportunities similar to the Mountain West. In New Hampshire, the party already has three incumbent party-switchers sitting in the unusually large, 400-member House of Representatives.
Those incumbents– Caleb Dyer, Brandon Phinney, and Joseph Stallcop– face very local elections, with low margins for victory under New Hampshire’s multi-member-district system. There is also a possibility that one or more of them will seek to run as “fusion” candidates for re-election. In that scenario, they would secure the official nomination of both their own Libertarian Party, as well as the major-party that is more dominant in their districts, and whose tickets they were originally elected on in 2016. (Republicans in the case of Dyer and Phinney, Democrats for Stallcop).
The incumbent advantage is real, but voting trends for the NH legislature also tend to be sharply partisan, a real obstacle for even a Libertarian incumbent who doesn’t secure the endorsement of either local Republicans or Democrats (or both… which would not be unprecedented in the state).
Next-door Maine also offers potential, thanks to having become the first state to adopt instant run-off voting, also known as ranked choice. Long loved by opponents of the two-party system, this change is currently tied up in uncertainty, due to a mix of both judicial and legislative activity. It’s not yet known whether IROV will actually be used during the 2018 elections, but if it is, it will provide a chance for Libertarians to test the theory that they could prevail if not hindered by the perception of “wasted votes” and perpetual spoiler status.
Continued tomorrow with Part II, and races to watch in Massachusetts, New York, Florida, and California.