Republicans Seem To Be Afraid Of Gary Johnson And Other Libertarians

Gary Johnson

Many of my conversations with Republicans regarding the Presidential race and the fact that I intend to vote for Gary Johnson usually end up in one of two categories. First, there are the people who tell me that by voting for Johnson, I’m voting for President Obama. As I’ve noted before, this an absurd argument largely because it assumes that Mitt Romney is entitled to my vote as a libertarian, an argument which I don’t accept. The other argument I frequently hear is one that basically says that my vote is wasted because Gary Johnson isn’t going to have any impact on the race. I’ve always thought that the two arguments are mutually contradictory. After all, if my vote for Johnson is going to hurt Romney then it obviously will have some impact on the race, and if it isn’t going to have any impact on the race then it isn’t going to hurt Mitt Romney. You really can’t make both arguments at the same time.

I’ve always thought, though, that the best way to judge what people really think is to look at how they act, and based on their actions, Republicans really seem to be concerned about Gary Johnson’s potential impact on the Presidential race:

When he was running for the Republican presidential nomination last year, Gary Johnson, the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, drew ridicule from mainstream party members as he advocated legalized marijuana and a 43 percent cut in military spending.

Now campaigning as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, Mr. Johnson is still only a blip in the polls. But he is on the ballot in every state except Michigan and Oklahoma, enjoys the support of a few small “super PACs” and is trying to tap into the same grass-roots enthusiasm that helped build Representative Ron Paul a big following. And with polls showing the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney to be tight, Mr. Johnson’s once-fellow Republicans are no longer laughing.

Around the country, Republican operatives have been making moves to keep Mr. Johnson from becoming their version of Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate whose relatively modest support cut into Al Gore’s 2000 vote arguably enough to help hand the decisive states of Ohio and Florida to George W. Bush.

The fear of Mr. Johnson’s tipping the outcome in an important state may explain why an aide to Mr. Romney ran what was effectively a surveillance operation into Mr. Johnson’s efforts over the summer to qualify for the ballot at the Iowa State Fair, providing witnesses to testify in a lawsuit to block him that ultimately fizzled.

Libertarians suspect it is why Republican state officials in Michigan blocked Mr. Johnson from the ballot after he filed proper paperwork three minutes after his filing deadline.

And it is why Republicans in Pennsylvania hired a private detective to investigate his ballot drive in Philadelphia, appearing at the homes of paid canvassers and, in some cases, flashing an F.B.I. badge — he was a retired agent — while asking to review the petitions they gathered at $1 a signature, according to testimony in the case and interviews.

The challenge in Pennsylvania, brought by state Republican Party officials who suspected that Democrats were secretly helping the effort to get Mr. Johnson on the ballot, was shot down in court last week, bringing to 48 the number of states where Mr. Johnson will compete on Nov. 6.

Reince Priebus, the national Republican Party chairman, has called Mr. Johnson a “nonfactor.” And Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said that its entire focus was on beating Mr. Obama and that “voters understand the stakes are high, and if they want to change the trajectory of this country, they’ll vote for Romney.”

But Robert Gleason, the Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman, vowing that the state will become far more competitive for Mr. Romney than Democrats realize, said he was not about to give Mr. Johnson an easy opening to play a Nader to Mr. Romney’s Gore in Pennsylvania this year.

“This election will be close — if you remember, Bush lost by only something like 143,000 votes in 2004,” said Mr. Gleason, noting that his party has managed to disqualify tens of thousands of Libertarian signatures. “So we play the game hard here.”

There has already been evidence in polling from states such as New Mexico, Colorado, and Virginia, that Johnson could have enough of an impact on the race to end up throwing the state to one candidate or the other on Election Day. The interesting thing, though, is that he seems to be drawing votes from different candidates depending on the state one is talking about. In Virginia, the limited number of polls that include more candidates than just President Obama and Governor Romeny would seem to suggest that Governor Johnson is drawing support away from Governor Romney. In Colorado, though, the polls suggest that he’s principally hurting the President. In that case, it appears that the initiative on Colorado’s ballot that would legalize marijuana is helping Johnson, who is the only candidate to explicitly campaign on a platform that calls for marijuana legalization. There is also evidence that Johnson is gaining support in Oregon, which has a similar initiative on the ballot although in that case it seems unlikely that he’ll have a major impact on the race in a state that has been solidly Democratic for years now.

Republicans apparently aren’t just concerned about potential libertarian impact on the Presidential race, there are also indications that the libertarian vote could have an impact on GOP hopes to retake the Senate:

Democratic hopes of maintaining a razor-thin Senate majority may hinge on an unexpected outside force: Libertarians.

In the battlegrounds of Montana, Arizona and Missouri, polls show the Libertarian nominee poised to siphon a fraction of the vote — a small fraction, but potentially enough to tip the outcome in a cliffhanger. And with the battle for the Senate shaping up to be a coin-flip proposition, no factor — not even fringe candidates with little more than a Libertarian label to propel their campaigns — is too insignificant to dismiss.

Given the small-government mantra of Libertarian voters, Democratic officials see the development as a major boon.

“Ralph Nader in reverse” is how Arizona GOP strategist Jason Rose characterized the 2012 dynamic.

“When candidates bloody each other up, nondescript candidates can become safe harbors,” he said.

Still, senior Republican officials dismiss the impact of Libertarians, particularly in Montana, arguing that the third-party candidates pull a tiny number of disaffected voters about equally from both parties.

Libertarian candidates in these three Senate races — as well as in Indiana — have enormous handicaps: a lack of money, party infrastructure and name ID, to name a few. So they’re clamoring to share the debate stage with their better-known rivals — and Democrats are all too happy to oblige.

In Missouri, Sen.Claire McCaskill has no problem letting Libertarian Jonathan Dine participate in the final debate Thursday; GOP Rep. Todd Akin scoffs at the idea. In an Arizona debate last week, Libertarian nominee Marc Victor went after Republican Rep. Jeff Flake on his signature issue of killing earmarks, aiding Democrat Richard Carmona in the process.

And in Montana, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester even said during his last one-on-one debate with GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg that it was “too bad” that Libertarian candidate Dan Cox wasn’t allowed to participate. On Sunday night, the 36-year-old Cox joined in a debate with the two main candidates, using the forum to attack both men for “nibbling around the edges” and failing to uphold their constitutional oaths of office.

“Rehberg didn’t vote for [the economic stimulus bill], but he did vote to raise the debt ceiling,” Cox said at the debate. “What you’re basically saying is, ‘I’m enabling this spending that I didn’t vote for.’ So either way, it’s two sides of the same coin. One guy is voting for it, the other guy is voting to allow it.”

The effect of these longshot, third-party contenders could be most pronounced in Montana and Arizona, which both have strong Libertarian streaks. And they could very well hurt Republicans more than Democrats

This wouldn’t be the first time that a Libertarian Party Senate candidate had an impact on a race. In both 1992 and 2002, the LP candidate for Senate in Georgia garnered enough votes to force a runoff election between the Republican and Democratic candidates. In both cases, the Republican candidate ended up winning the runoff election, but the mere fact that a third-party candidate as able to deny either candidate a majority was at east noteworthy. The biggest potential impacts for a libertarian candidate this year would appear to be in Missouri and Indiana, where Republican candidates that seem to be out of step with the general electorate are facing far tougher challenges from their Democratic opponents. In each case, even a 1% showing in the polls could have a major impact.

All of this leads me to a simple point. As they have always been, conservative Republicans continue to be dismissive of libertarians and libertarian-minded politicians. With evidence growing that libertarian voters and libertarian politicians really can have an impact on the outcome of elections, perhaps they need to reconsider their attitude.

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