Libertarians Rising: Third Party In Arkansas Trying To Be More Than A Third Wheel

File photo of Libertarian Party Chairman Michael Pakko speaking at the state Capitol.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR News

In the last two election cycles, one political party in Arkansas has fielded a full slate of candidates to challenge the Republicans for state and federal offices, and it’s not the Democrats.

Members of the Libertarian Party of Arkansas competed for all state constitutional offices and in all congressional races in 2014 and are on the ballot in all congressional races this year. In the First, Third and Fourth Congressional Districts, Republican incumbents are challenged only by Libertarian opponents.

This will be the third straight election cycle where the party will be fielding candidates below the presidential level. It ran 28 candidates in 2014 and is running 23 this year.

Of course, fielding candidates is a lot different than winning elections. The best any Libertarian could manage in a three-way statewide or congressional race in 2014 was the 6.36% won by Chris Hayes in the treasurer’s race, and in a two-way race in the Third District, Grant Brand won less than 21% facing incumbent Congressman Steve Womack. The party counts about a hundred dues-paying members at the state level and perhaps another hundred or so who are registered Libertarians but not active in the state party.

SEEKING THREE PERCENT
So no one is expecting a Libertarian landslide. However, another number seems within reach: 3%. If the party’s presidential candidate can hit that percentage in November, the Libertarians, founded nationally in 1971, will not be considered a “new” party under state law during the 2018 election cycle. That would save the party from having to collect 10,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, an exercise that cost $34,000 for this year’s cycle as well as a lot of energy and legwork.

That percentage seems attainable this year, particularly if the two major parties nominate polarizing candidates like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In 2012, the Libertarians’ candidate, Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico, won only 1.5% of the vote in Arkansas. But a recent national poll showed him at 11% this year.

“If you can detach yourself from it and just look at it, it’s really interesting, but since there’s so much at stake, it’s also a little terrifying,” said Frank Gilbert, this year’s Libertarian Senate candidate and the party’s nominee for governor in 2014.

What do Libertarians want to achieve? The party’s chair, Dr. Michael Pakko, UALR Institute for Economic Advancement chief economist and state economic forecaster, describes the Libertarian philosophy as “fiscally responsible and socially tolerant.”

Libertarians are the party of minimal government – to the right of Republicans on fiscal issues and to the left of Democrats socially. Pakko describes the party’s coalition as being composed of three groups: small government constitutionalists, minanarchists who want minimal government and anarchists who want no government. Fundamentally, they agree on the “nonaggression principle,” meaning force should not be initiated to achieve social goals. So Libertarians as a party would stay out of personal decisions, shrink the military, support gun rights, end the drug war and abolish social programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

“It’s not because we don’t think that those are valid objectives for society,” Pakko said of the latter. “On an awful lot of issues, we can concede, yeah, that’s a great idea. If it’s such a good idea, maybe we should have someone more efficient than government implementing it.”

Libertarians are running candidates in all four House races: Mark West in the First District; Chris Hayes in the Second; Steve Isaacson in the Third; and Kerry Hicks in the Fourth. Two Libertarians are running in state Senate races: in District 26, Elvis Presley (yes, that’s his real name); and in District 32, Jacob Mosier. Nine candidates are running for state House races, while seven are running for local offices.

SUING THE STATE
Meanwhile, the party is suing the state to get eight more candidates on the ballot. A state law requires the party to nominate its full slate by the end of the filing period. That law forced the party to hold its nominating convention for the November 2016 election in October 2015, while Republicans and Democrats didn’t choose their candidates until March 1.

On Feb. 25, U.S. District Judge James Moody denied the party’s request for a preliminary injunction allowing it to add or substitute nominees. He ruled that candidates had not been harmed by their early nominating date and that the state “has a strong interest in preventing voter confusion by limiting ballot access to serious candidates.” A trial date has not been set.

Moody in 2015 rejected a similar lawsuit by independent candidates. But Pakko thinks the cases are different enough that the party has a shot of winning. To improve its chances and increase its legal standing, the party nominated eight additional candidates in February who are waiting to see if they will be allowed on the ballot.

Gilbert is running a grassroots campaign for Senate. As of early April, he had made about 20 campaign stops. Unlike many Libertarians, he’s not philosophically opposed to raising money; it’s just hard for third-party candidates to do so. In the 2014 governor’s race, he raised about $5,000. He plans to be more active this year than he was then, and he was pretty active then.

“That campaign to me was missionary work,” he said. “It was an effort to find and build some local support. … I’m not going to be doing missionary work this time. I want as many votes as I can get.”

FEELING HOPEFUL
Pakko sees reason for optimism. He sees more interest in the party this year, especially at the presidential level. Fox Business already has hosted two debates featuring the Libertarian candidates.

Gilbert is optimistic, too. He says members of the Tea Party traditionally have seen Libertarians as a distraction from their goal of changing the Republican Party from within. But the Republicans have made too many unkept promises, such as repealing Obamacare. At the state level, he notes that Republicans changed abortion law because they wanted to, but other things haven’t yet changed, such as the private option, the program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for lower income Arkansans. As of this writing, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been trying to extend the program with changes and a new name, Arkansas Works.

“That part of the Republican Party that believed that Asa Hutchinson was going to end the private option, those folks are talking,” Gilbert said.

In the First District, Mark West, an office manager and bi-vocational pastor, said he ran as a Libertarian because the party has the “most constitutional viewpoint.”

West said his father worked hard to give him a better life, and he’s afraid his own children are inheriting too much debt and not enough individual liberty.

“I believe that we should have the power to run our own lives, to make our own choices, and the only way to get there is to begin peeling away all these layers of federal government that are taking those rights away,” he said.

Given the difficulties of running as a Libertarian, and the party’s lack of historical success, why not run as a Republican or Democrat and try to move one of those parties in a more libertarian direction? West doesn’t see much hope in that strategy.

“Both parties aren’t moving,” he said. “If they were going to move, they would have moved decades ago. They have had opportunities. They’ve had candidates that have tried to move them that direction, and both of those parties continue to drift toward a more authoritarian viewpoint of government, and neither one of them show any desire to want to do anything different.”

In the Third District, Isaacson is a newcomer to the party. A Vietnam veteran who retired after 20 years in the military, he said he was run over by a tank in 1985 and spent more than 23 years fighting the Veterans Administration for his benefits. Veterans advocacy is his top concern, and he also promises a self-imposed limit of three terms.

He said he was approached about challenging Congressman Steve Womack for the Third District seat as a Republican but ran out of time raising money to pay the filing fee. He then started collecting signatures for an independent run but fell short of that number as well. When the Libertarians’ Third District candidate, Nathan LaFrance, moved to another state, Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed the party to nominate another candidate in his place.

At a special caucus in Fayetteville, Isaacson was questioned about his views to see if they matched the party’s. They were close enough. He says he wants to “get the government out of our pockets and out of our backyard.”

“There’s some things in the Libertarians I do agree with, but like I told them, basically I’m going to be myself,” he said.

LOOKING TO BE COMPETITIVE
Pakko is hardly expecting a Libertarian landslide this year, but he’s hoping the party can be more competitive than in the past. In a number of races, the Libertarian is the only opponent facing a major party candidate. “In some cases, depending on the circumstances and the ability of our candidates to marshal some resources and mount effective campaigns, I don’t think it’s inconceivable that we might win a race here or there,” he said.

So what then? What if the dog catches the car, and the party starts growing and winning elections? Both Gilbert and Pakko said that would create some challenges. Pakko said that the party has always been concerned that someone who’s really not a Libertarian – a disaffected Republican or Democrat – would use the party as his or her own vehicle, or that outsiders would seize the party’s reins. Even if those don’t happen, success would require a lot of newcomers. “When the time comes that the Libertarian Party is ready to break through and be competitive in the electoral process, it’s going to feel to an awful lot of insiders that it’s an outside takeover,” he said.

Gilbert says that he has long been concerned about the party’s purists, or “this percentage in the Libertarian Party who really don’t want to get involved in electoral politics.” After decades of working for the cause, he wants the party to be more than a club or debating society. He’s ready to win, and then deal with the consequences.

“I’m in the camp for, ‘Wade out into it neck deep,’” he said, ‘“and see what happens.’”