When the Libertarians held a nominating convention at the Comfort Inn in Little Rock two years ago, they looked like a debating society. When they met in the same place this past Saturday, they looked more like a political party — a small, third party still a long way from winning a major race, but a party nonetheless.
Two years ago, a couple of dozen people nominated sacrificial lamb candidates for a handful of offices. The work of gathering signatures to get on the ballot had pretty much zapped its members of their energy.
There was a different vibe Saturday. Of the 45 delegates who attended the convention, 26 walked out as candidates. The event brought to Little Rock Jim Gray, the party’s candidate for vice president in 2012, as well as the national party’s chairman and the executive director of the national campaign committee. The three candidates for governor had a debate.
Still, running for major office as a third party candidate sometimes seems the equivalent of trying to win Olympic gold as the only competitor skiing uphill. The Libertarian candidate for president in 2012 was an experienced elected official, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, an ex-Republican. He won 1.5 percent of the vote in Arkansas.
"The stated goal is to become the governor of Arkansas. The real goal is to get 3 percent," explained Frank Gilbert, 63, of Tull, the party’s candidate for that job. Under Arkansas law, a 3 percent showing in that race would mean the party would not have to spend its time and money gathering signatures to get on the ballot in 2016.
Libertarians are the party of less government — really less government. They’d cut taxes — in fact, Gilbert would do away with the state income tax — but they’d also cut government programs significantly, including the popular ones. As Steve LaFrance, 35, of Bella Vista, the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate, put it, "Too much money is coming out of our pockets as taxpaying Americans and going to things that we have no control over that are being run inefficiently by the federal government."
That sounds like Republican rhetoric, but Libertarians are a lot more serious about it, and the party’s less government philosophy lands it to the left of many Arkansas Democrats on social issues. Gilbert’s other top priorities are "marriage equality" — getting government entirely out of the marriage business, gay or straight, actually — and legalizing medical marijuana. Were he elected, he would pardon every Arkansan in jail for simple marijuana possession and set up a commission to study the more complex drug cases.
What will it take for third parties to win something, if the past 13 years of questionable wars, huge government deficits, bailouts and the Great Recession haven’t done it? Evan McMahon, the national party’s campaign executive director, candidly said that winning a seat in Congress is "a little ways off." Victories will have to come at lower levels.
Meanwhile challenges will remain. Third party candidates and independents are routinely shut out of debates and ignored by the media. As a result, McMahon said, "When people don’t know what their options are other than just seeing a name on a ballot, they tend to vote for more of the same."
The party’s candidates for Congress are Brian Willhite of Cabot in the 1st District; Debbie Standiford of Little Rock in the 2nd; Grant Brand of Pea Ridge in the 3rd; and Ken Hamilton of El Dorado in the 4th. Christopher Olson of Alco is running for lieutenant governor; Jacob Holloway of Little Rock for secretary of state; Brian Leach of Fort Smith for auditor; Chris Hayes of Little Rock for treasurer; and, for land commissioner, Elvis Presley of Star City. Yep, that’s his name.
I’ll be reporting more on the Greens, the independents, and other non-major party candidates in this space. As McMahon said, the media should report about voters’ options. It’s up to voters to decide if they want more of the same.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.