Last Tuesday’s Republican victory in the fiercely-fought special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District produced more relief than jubilation as the GOP barely managed to secure a seat the party had controlled for more than four decades. To win the contest, newly-elected conservative David Jolly had to overcome both a well-known, lavishly-funded Democratic challenger and another factor that will bedevil Republicans in local battles across the country in the fall: the presence on the ballot of a goof-ball Libertarian contender who can capture just enough votes to tip the results without the slightest chance of actually winning the election.
In the special election in Pinellas County, the Libertarians nominated Lucas Overby, a twenty-seven year old with no college degree but with neatly trimmed, bright orange, Captain Ahab chin-whiskers, who works as a “commercial dive manager” in a company owned by his dad. He won nearly 9,000 votes, or some 4.8% of the total –considerably more than the Jolly margin of victory of 3,417 votes. Had the election gone the other way, with a victory for Democrat Alex Sink, Overby’s votes easily could have determined the outcome due to the normal assumption that candidates for the Libertarian Party draw more heavily from Republicans than they do from Democrats.
In fact, in last year’s achingly close Virginia gubernatorial race, many campaign veterans believe that the showing by Libertarian nominee Robert Sarvis tipped the election to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Sarvis got 146,000 votes (6.5%) for his quirky campaign, while conservative stalwart Ken Cuccinelli lost by only 56,000 votes, or 2.6% of the total. In a similar battle, dynamic black conservative Mia Love barely lost her 2012 race in Utah’s 4th Congressional district, falling short by just 768 votes, or 0.3% of the total. Meanwhile, Jim Vein, the Libertarian nominee whose official statement to the voters ignored traditional rules of capitalization, spelling and grammar, drew 6,439 votes and 2.63%.
Apologists for the Libertarian Party insist that their candidates draw more or less evenly from Republicans, Democrats, and the unaffiliated who wouldn’t choose one of the major party nominees in any event. For several reasons, however, most GOP operatives question that contention. On the most important issues of the day – the sour Obama economy, the growth of government and the repeal of Obamacare — Republicans and Libertarians take very similar if not virtually identical positions. Moreover, Libertarian nominees, who often wear bow-ties and seem to live in their mother’s basement playing World of Warcraft, exert little appeal to the ethnic minorities, union households and single mothers who comprise the Democratic base. But they do go after younger, prosperous, white, business-oriented voters who otherwise tilt heavily Republican.
The biggest problem with these campaigns isn’t the damage they do to the Republican cause but their failure to achieve anything at all for the Libertarian cause. Two years later, does it make any difference to the world or to anyone in politics that Libertarian nominee Jim Vein managed to eke out 6,439 votes in Utah? But his presence temporarily blocked the ascendancy of Haitian-American firebrand Mia Love, a rising star in conservative ranks (who is running again in November and is heavily favored to capture the seat).
Die-hard enthusiasts for the Libertarian Party resort to the mantra that it takes many years of effort and investment to build the base for an ideologically adventurous third party. But this contention conveniently ignores the fact that they reached their high water mark some 34 years ago, when Ed Clark ran for the presidency again Ronald Reagan and drew 1.06% of the popular vote. Eight years later, when the Libertarians nominated a tart-tongued Texan named Ron Paul as their standard bearer against George H. W. Bush, he drew half as many votes – only 0.47% of the electorate. In 2012, with former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson running an aggressive campaign for the White House, the Libertarians remained reliably below 1% during the Obama-Romney race.
In fact, the narrative that claims that successful third parties evolve gradually and patiently from the primordial ooze of politics counts as a ludicrous lie. In 1854, the first year the newly-minted Republicans fielded candidates for any federal office, they won 108 seats in the House of Representatives and took control of the chamber. Two years later, their presidential candidate (John C. Fremont) finished a close second and four years after that, Lincoln won the White House. Third parties sometimes keep operating without success for decades– like the old Socialist and Prohibition Parties, or today’s Libertarians– but this history offers year after year of futility and irrelevance without evidence of even intermittent triumphs.
The sad part of this record involves the prodigious waste of time, energy, investment and idealism with no evidence of progress or influence. The Libertarian establishment has refused to follow the obvious example of the Paul family which years ago escaped the third party sandbox for the meaningful arena of influence within the GOP. Rand Paul stands now on the verge of a serious and credible bid for the Republican nomination and has clearly found the right vehicle to advance libertarian (small ‘I’) ideas.
Candidacies like the idiosyncratic bid of Florida’s Lucas Overby actually break faith with their voters. Conservatives who wanted to dismantle Obamacare and rein in federal spending made no meaningful contribution to those causes by voting for daddy’s dive manager. Meanwhile, social liberals who may have embraced his advocacy for legal marijuana and redefining marriage, did nothing to advance those causes if they threw their votes into the pile of Overby’s meaningless 4.8%.
If a party achieves an uninterrupted losing streak that lasts for more than thirty years, it’s fair to characterize them as Losertarians, as I have on the air on many occasions. It’s true that libertarian (small ‘I’) ideas may be bracing and worthy in their own right, but the party that flies the Libertarian (big ‘L’) banner isn’t so much a political organization as it is a quasi-religious death cult, that embraces the sanctimonious satisfactions of inevitable and unenviable martyrdom.
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