At the Cotham’s in the City restaurant near the Capitol, two potential candidates for governor are eating lunch at the same long table.
That might be awkward if they were both Democrats or Republicans, or if they were one and the other, and both had a chance to win. Instead, they’re both Libertarians – Frank Gilbert, who was elected a Saline County constable last year, and businessman Shawn Hipskind. A third potential candidate, Glen Schwartz, isn’t at the restaurant.
"In the past, Libertarians probably had to play ‘rock-scissors-paper’ to see who had to run for governor," Gilbert jokes.
Party chairperson Jessica Paxton and her husband, Rodger, the party’s previous chairman, say their party has some momentum going into 2014. They point to the government shutdown as evidence that Republicans and Democrats can’t be trusted to run the government and that the government can’t be trusted at all.
Party members are under no illusion that one of their own will be elected governor next year, but it was nevertheless a time for celebration. A couple of hours earlier and after months of work, they had submitted 16,441 signatures to the secretary of state’s office in order to qualify for next year’s ballot. They need 10,000 valid ones.
Republicans and Democrats don’t have to do that because their presidential candidates won at least three percent of the vote in 2012. Third parties, who have trouble reaching that threshold, say such rules stack the deck in favor of the established two parties.
"The Republicans and Democrats say that, ‘Oh, we can’t have a cluttered ballot. Oh, we can’t give you too many choices because you’re not smart enough to determine between four people whom you would want to vote for, so we can only give you two,’" Jessica Paxton tells me over a plate of food that’s getting cold while I interview her. "I say, crowd the ballot. You know, if 12 people want to run for governor, let them."
There was a time when Arkansas Republicans were where the Libertarians are – irrelevant but aspiring. Now they control both houses of the Legislature.
But that situation might be different. Democratic dominance was a holdover from the Civil War, but the two parties’ policies were not so very different. Libertarians are different. They mean it when they say they support smaller government. They typically support major cutbacks in social services and the military. They also usually favor gay marriage, abortion rights and ending the war on drugs.
They will have a convention next spring to nominate candidates. Paxton says she expects the party to compete for many positions and that members are interested in running in all four congressional districts and for the U.S. Senate seat.
That last one might have an impact in a close race. A recent Talk Business/Hendrix College poll found that Democrat Mark Pryor and Republican Tom Cotton are separated by only one point. Jessica Paxton collected 2.6 percent of the vote running for Congress in the 1st District last year.
Interestingly, that poll found that the largest bloc of Arkansas voters aren’t Democrats (31 percent) or Republicans (25 percent) but independents (36 percent). Counting the 8 percent who say they are "other," 44 percent of Arkansans told a pollster they don’t identify with either of the two major parties.
Still, voters who call themselves independents tend to vote one side or the other. Pollster and analyst Jay Barth, a Hendrix College professor, said 71 percent of independent Arkansans voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. The three third-party presidential candidates only won about 2.5 percent of the vote combined.
Will voters give third party and independent candidates a chance in 2014? They haven’t much in the past.
However, there were many choices on the Cotham’s menu, and diners seemed capable of making their own decisions. Even rock-paper-scissors involves three choices.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.