Heading into Election Day, the Libertarian Party had high hopes that its presidential nominee, Texas computer programmer Michael Badnarik, might prove the decisive factor in a handful of key battleground states.
“At one point we seemed to believe that was going to happen,” said Libertarian Party Executive Director Joe Seehusen.[IMGCAP(1)]
Instead, President Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by more than 3 million votes while Republicans expanded their majorities in the House and Senate. Nationwide, Badnarik netted less than 400,000 votes, despite making the ballot in 48 states and the District, and none of the party’s Congressional candidates came close to winning.
But rather than representing a stunning defeat, Libertarian officials say the Republican victory may prove a blessing in disguise for the nation’s most prominent third party.
According to Seehusen, the GOP’s election trifecta represents an opening for his party to make inroads with fiscal conservatives, and social progressives opposed to the Patriot Act and GOP efforts to ban gay marriage.
“They have no one to restrain them,” he said of Republicans. “If you are a real fiscal conservative … there is no way you can conclude that is happening under a Bush presidency and a Republican Congress.”
Enter the Libertarian Party.
“We are a party that represents much of what America thinks,” Seehusen asserted.
With that in mind, Seehusen says the party is set to launch “an aggressive growth plan,” which includes roughly $300,000 allocated for party building and outreach efforts. That’s a pittance to Democrats and Republicans, of course, but a respectable amount of money to a third party.
The initiative will focus on both forging and strengthening relationships with “a wide range of groups we think are aligned with our thinking,” Seehusen says.
As an example, he cites the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, civil libertarian groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and even Sierra Club “free market environmentalists.”
“I have no reason to think we can’t reach out to African American voters who have not fared particularly well under government programs,” adds Seehusen,” pointing to the war on drugs and the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program as two federal efforts often described as failures that could attract black voters to the Libertarian Party.
Former Republican Rep. Bob Barr (Ga.), who voted for Badnarik and now considers himself an Independent due to his disagreements with the GOP over civil liberties, believes the political environment is ripe for the Libertarian Party to gain ground by providing a voice for those unhappy with the Bush administration’s record.
“I do see an opportunity given the overtly unconservative policy seen over the last four years by the administration … for the Libertarian Party to be much more of a voice for conservatives and to influence national policy in ways it hasn’t been able to in the past,” Barr says.
He adds that the party’s influence shouldn’t be limited to a mere ideological lobbying role but should extend to the ballot box.
Despite such optimism, the reality remains that aside from its 600 or so local office holders (about 350 are elected), the party has yet to deliver on the Congressional or presidential level. And though Libertarian candidates may have siphoned off critical votes from the Democratic contender in the Washington gubernatorial contest — where Libertarian Ruth Bennett, a socially liberal lesbian who supports gay marriage, has netted more than 60,000 votes in a race so close that no winner has been declared — not one statewide elected official in the United States currently claims the LP as its own.
“The numbers say to me there were plenty of disgruntled Republicans who independent of being disgruntled still voted for George Bush,” says former Libertarian National Committee Executive Board member Don Ernsberger, deputy chief of staff to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).
“Most Americans think of [politics] like a football game. There are two teams. One’s going to win, and one’s going to lose,” Ernsberger says. Aside from those times when major “personalities” such as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader have launched presidential bids, “the interest in people voting for a third party is not there.”
Not since the Civil War era, when Abraham Lincoln ran on the then-upstart Republican Party ticket, has a third party catapulted to lasting national prominence.
“And that was only because the Whigs fell apart,” Ernsberger adds, noting that although he is no longer active in the party he still votes Libertarian as a matter of principle.
Ernsberger, who has run on the Libertarian ticket for House and Senate seats, says the “best- case scenario is that the party exerts influence in the GOP that would move the GOP to be more tolerant socially and more traditionally conservative fiscally.”
Republicans known for their small “l” libertarian tendencies also downplayed the potential for Libertarians to wield any kingmaker influence on the Congressional or presidential level.
“They have so far to go,” says Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). But, he adds, “I’m glad they are there. Sometimes in [candidate] debates they can make me look downright moderate.”
Within Congressional circles, Ernsberger estimated there were roughly 35 House Republicans, including his boss Rohrabacher, Flake, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the Libertarian Party’s 1988 presidential candidate, who not only “talk about free enterprise and lower government, but actually vote that way.”
But Badnarik, the defeated Libertarian presidential candidate whose official campaign biography boasts of his one-time status as a “big man on campus” during his college days at Indiana University, says he has no plans to work “with a corrupt Congress that is growing the size of the federal government.” Nor is he particularly disappointed with the results of the election given that he “doesn’t trust the accuracy of the result” from paperless electronic voting machines.
Nevertheless, Badnarik, who developed an eight-hour class on the Constitution that he travels around the country teaching, says he will run for president again in 2008 and is putting together an advisory committee to weigh his options for a bid for elective office in Texas next cycle.
Ultimately, Badnarik predicts, Libertarians will be elected to numerous federal offices because neither Republicans nor Democrats can be trusted to uphold the Constitution.
“If I thought George Bush or John Kerry were willing to adhere to the Constitution, I would have stayed home and voted for one of them,” he says.