Dec 12, 2013

Libertarians Recruiting More Candidates in Pursuit of Election Success

Chart by Roy Varney, information from the Texas Secretary of State.

Chart by Roy Varney, information from the Texas Secretary of State.

By Roy Varney
For Reporting Texas

The shorthand for the original slogan of the Libertarian Party could easily be confused with an anagram or a new strand of flu. But TANSTAAFL — pronounced “tanstaffel” and standing for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” — was the 1971 launch of an effort to shake up the country’s traditionally two-party political system.

The first platform promised to “challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual.”

“We kind of half-jokingly said there was something in that platform that could offend anyone,” recalls Roger Gary, a party member since 1977.

Gary said he’s seen the meaning of Libertarianism in Texas change dramatically during his tenure. He has also see significant growth in the party’s ability to attract voters.

Libertarianism was once considered a fringe party in Texas, but thanks to improved leadership, prolonged public exposure and indirect benefits from the decline of the state Democratic Party, Texas is now the top producer of Libertarian candidates.

The Texas Libertarian Party, according to state chair Patrick Dixon, aims to have 200 candidates on the 2014 general election ballot. That would top the previous high of 173 in 2008 – 29 percent of all Libertarian candidates nationwide that year. In the 1992 Texas general election, 58 Libertarians received a collective 4.85 percent of votes. In 2012, 102 Libertarian candidates received 9.74 percent of votes.

Libertarianism has long espoused values generally popular in Texas, such as limited government and low taxes. But voters’ lack of knowledge about the party, and its support for issues such as legalizing marijuana and phasing out Social Security, have added to the sense that it is not mainstream.

“In 1971, when the party was formed, if you asked the vast majority of people, ‘What do you think of the Libertarian Party or Libertarianism?’ they’d have no idea what that term meant, and therefore it would be perceived as a radical thing,” Dixon said.

For Dixon, the biggest change in Libertarianism has been its shift from spreading its political philosophy to improving election results and supporting candidates.

The path has been rocky. Dixon said the party underwent sweeping changes after the 2002 Texas general election, when Libertarians grabbed a meager 2.22 percent of the total vote. In order to get its candidates on the ballot, a third party must either obtain 5 percent of the vote in a statewide election or gather petition signatures equal to 1 percent of the votes cast for the previous gubernatorial election.

In 2004, the party hired Wes Benedict, the former owner of a synthetic marble company, as Texas executive commissioner. Dixon said the party was short of money at the time, so Benedict accepted a contract that included a salary and a commission based on how much money he could raise.

“That risk paid off big-time,” Dixon said. “Over four years, he did a tremendous job.”

Together, Benedict and Dixon were able to get the party qualified for the 2004 elections.

Chart by Roy Varney.

Chart by Roy Varney, information from the Texas Libertarian Party.

At the same time, the Texas party has been re-energized, Libertarian ideals have gained more attention nationally with the rise of the Tea Party, which shares many of its free-market, individual liberty and limited government principles. However, Tea Party candidates running as Republicans have enjoyed much more election success than Libertarians have. The highest office any Libertarian has reached has been state representative in Vermont.

“They tend to draw votes mostly from white conservatives. The Republican Party also depends upon that vote base,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Running as a Republican worked for Ron Paul, a Surfside physician and prominent Libertarian who is retiring after 12 terms in Congress. Paul has been “a godfather to many young Libertarians,” said Richard Murray,
a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Murray said Libertarians also have benefited from the fact that Texas Democrats have not run candidates for every statewide office in recent years. That has made it easier for Libertarians to get on the ballot.

Allen Weatherford, a Libertarian who ran as a Republican for Upshur County commissioner, said Libertarians offer voters an alternative to the major parties, and that the rise in Libertarian voting has started to affect both Republicans and Democrats.

“This year, they’re starting to realize that we’re a pest,” Weatherford said. “Up until now, they’ve ignored us. But now we’re starting to swing votes and swing elections.”

This could become more interesting next year, Murray said. The race for governor, between Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis is expected to be closer than in past years. Murray said to keep an eye on how many votes the Libertarian nominee, who will be chosen at the party’s spring convention, is able to draw from conservative voters.

Much of the Libertarian voting base is from Central Texas, as indicated in the map of Libertarian voting history. Libertarian presidential and gubernatorial candidates in 2010 and 2012 received 2 percent of the vote in Travis, Hays, Williamson and Bastrop counties. In Harris and Dallas counties, Libertarian candidates received less than 1 percent of the vote.

Libertarian voting rates by county can be found on the Texas Secretary of State website.

Dixon attributes the Austin area’s Libertarian-friendliness to the fact that many of the party’s officers live in the region. State secretary Gary Johnson and treasurer Michael Burris both live in Austin.

Dixon plans to retire in April, which will open up the chair position during the national convention in June. Johnson also is planning to step away from politics. Both expect the party to eventually attract more votes in major races.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Johnson said. “On the other hand, we might just dry up and disappear. Although, I think that would have happened a long time ago, if that was the case.”

This story was corrected to reflect that the Libertarian nominee for Texas governor will be chosen in spring.