Across the United States, members of the nation’s third-largest political party are striving to build on their breakout presidential campaign in 2016. Gov. Gary Johnson’s bids for the White House increased the party’s usual vote totals almost 10-fold.
Into that mix have stepped an increasing number of Libertarian state legislators. In all cases thus far, each was initially elected as a member of another party. So 2018 may prove to be a critical test to see if the party can reward them by getting them re-elected as Libertarians.
In Utah and Nevada, state legislators left the GOP last year and became sitting Libertarians. However, State Senator Mark Madsen in Utah had already announced that he would not run for re-election at the end of his third term. And Nevada State Rep. John Moore lost his re-election bid, having failed to garner the support of Libertarians because of a controversial vote for a taxpayer-funded NFL stadium.
In New Hampshire, State Rep. Max Abramson switched to the Libertarian Party last year, but he opted to run for Governor instead of re-election to the legislature. Buoyed by Johnson’s result in the state, Abramson secured more than four percent of the vote. That brings official party status and ballot access in New Hampshire.
Three first-term members of the state’s 400-member lower house switched to the Libertarian Party this year. Caleb Dyer and Brandon Phinney, both elected as Republicans, and Joseph Stallcop, elected as a Democrat, have together formed the only currently existing Libertarian Caucus in a state legislative chamber.
Importantly, New Hampshire permits fusion nominations, which means that a candidate could secure both the Libertarian and a major-party nomination in their re-election campaigns in 2018. Although controversial within the Libertarian Party, the practice also has defenders as a practical political necessity.
In Nebraska, the party currently has a sitting Senator, Laura Ebke. She serves in the country’s only unicameral, and officially non-partisan, state legislature. Citing dissatisfaction with the increasing partisanship and attempts to implement partisan vote-whipping in the legislature, Ebke renounced her membership in the GOP in 2016.
She joined the Libertarian Party and endorsed Johnson for president. Because legislators in Nebraska serve four-year terms, she did not face re-election in 2016, but does in 2018.
Ebke is already making an enthusiastic bid for a second term. In the opinion of many observers, the lack of party labels will be more of a help than hindrance. A popular and well-respected incumbent, Ebke has continued to play a prominent role in the legislature since her party-switch. She helped secure passage of a ballot access bill that will maintain the Libertarian Party’s status in the state. She was elected by her colleagues to chair the state’s Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for marking up all criminal justice-related bills.
As previously covered here at The Jack News, Ebke’s priority bill for the rest of her current term is an overhaul of Nebraska’s oppressive occupational licensing regime. She has built a multipartisan coalition including the head of the state’s ACLU, and the head of the state’s leading free-market conservative think tank.
Ebke provides a practical model for other legislators to follow
Ebke’s example also offers some insight into why more state legislators are considering making the switch to the Libertarian Party. As a Republican state legislator, one of thousands nationwide, she attracted little notice or support from outside her district. She stood alone when she bucked party orthodoxy, including on a hot-button issue like the death penalty or the state budget.
But as the highest-place Libertarian officeholder currently, Ebke has tapped into a national support base, with few competitors for such attention. Libertarians across the country follow her legislative activity, invite her to speak at state conventions, and donate towards her re-election campaign.
The Libertarian Party’s ability to reelect one of its own incumbents is no longer implausible. An estimated $12 million were raised for the 2016 Johnson/Weld campaign and its associated PACs. A small fraction of that would be enough to secure the re-election of state legislators.
“I got frustrated with some of my colleagues who don’t recognize civil liberties and don’t seem to agree with getting government out of people’s business,” Ebke told the Omaha World-Herald about her switch to libertarianism. While unusually brave in acting on it, that sentiment that is far from unique. Among Republican state legislators nationwide, many chafe against their party’s official platform and discipline.
If Ebke secures her second term – which which would also be her last consecutive one under the state’s term limits –attention would likely turn to other liberty-minded state legislators nationwide. In some state chambers, they could potentially hold the balance of power if they bolted from the GOP.
(Photo of Sen. Laura Ebke at the University of Nebraska Medical Center from by UNMC.)