Colorado Libertarians nominated a record 41 candidates for state, federal and county offices last weekend at the party’s state convention in Golden and party officials predicted that a recent rise in its ranks — the number of registered Libertarians in the state more than doubled over the last two years — could mean the perennial third party emerges as a bona fide major party by the end of the decade.
But an even better measure of the party’s growing political influence is the mainstream adoption of longstanding Libertarian policies, party officials said, pointing to legalized marijuana in Colorado and a steady move toward same-sex marriage nationwide.
“OK, we’re not getting anybody elected, but look at our issues,” said former two-term New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who was the Libertarian nominee for president in 2012 and spoke at the Colorado convention on Saturday night.
“I believe I would have been the next president of the United States if people had heard what I had to say,” 2012 Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson says at the Colorado Libertarian Party convention on March 29 at the Marriott Denver West in Golden. Johnson was the Republican governor of New Mexico for two terms before joining the Libertarians.
“Look at our issues — marriage equality, when it comes to drugs, these things are happening. And in military intervention — look at what happened with Syria and Libya. Congress and the president are ready to go, and whoa, 80 percent of Americans don’t want to do this. These are our issues, this is what everybody here needs to take credit for, is raising these issues,” Johnson told the crowd at the Marriott Denver West. “We’re not winning the election, but we’re sure winning hearts and minds.”
Libertarians also hope to win some elections this year, perhaps adding to the handful of local officials affiliated with the party — elected Libertarians include Glendale City Councilman Michael Dunafon and trustees in the towns of Rangely and Silt, in addition to a couple of water board members — in the state where the party was founded.
Libertarian nominees for major offices in Colorado this year include U.S. Senate candidate Gaylon Kent; congressional candidates Frank Atwood in CD 1, Jess Loban in CD 4, Tyler Bagley in CD 7; gubernatorial candidate Matthew Hess and his running mate, Brandon Young; state treasurer candidate David Jurist; secretary of state candidate David Schambach; and attorney general candidate David K. Williams.
“We’re excited about some of these races,” state party chairman Jeff Orrok told The Colorado Statesman, noting that for the first time, the party has nominated an entire slate of candidates for statewide executive offices, along with 26 legislative candidates. “I think we can actually give some of the big boys a run for their money.”
Orrok pointed out that the party nominee in Senate District 32, Darrell Dinges, is the only one so far running against state Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, in the heavily Democratic district. In addition, attorney general nominee Williams, who preceded Orrok as state Libertarian Party chairman, is attracting lots of attention and an unusual number of endorsements.
“We’re not quite the pariahs we used to be,” Orrok said with a smile. “We’re starting to be respectable and worth people’s time, as far as consideration. We’re on the upswing.”
The Libertarian Party — “The message we’re offering is individual liberty, personal responsibility, severely limited government,” Orrok summarized — was founded by David Nolan in Colorado Springs in 1971 and has fielded presidential candidates in every election since, including 1988 nominee Ron Paul, who went on to claim a vocal share of the GOP electorate when he ran for that party’s presidential nomination as a Republican congressman in 2008 and 2012.
Johnson won a record 1,275,951 votes in the 2012 election — “I did take third place in the last presidential election,” he said with a grin — and six other Libertarians received more than 1 million votes the same year. In January, party officials counted 149 Libertarians holding elective office nationwide.
At the end of February, the Colorado Secretary of State’s office reported there were 20,890 active voters registered Libertarian out of 2,869,245, or 7/10ths of 1 percent of total active voters. (By comparison, there were 7,079 members of the Green Party and 5,845 affiliated with the American Constitution Party, Colorado’s other main third parties.) It’s a sliver of the electorate, but it’s also more than double the number of active registered Libertarians at the same point in 2012, when there were only 9,684.
“We’re doubling at about a rate of every four years,” Orrok said, adding that he ran for party chairman on a platform of accelerating that rate to every two years. “If that scenario plays out, we’re looking at becoming a major party by 2018 or 2022,” he said, estimating that there are “at least three quarters of a million Libertarian-minded voters in Colorado right now.”
“We do get a lot of people who used to be a Republican, but we also get a lot of people who used to be a Democrat,” he said. In particular, he added, voters in their 20s who are “not cleaving to the rigid models, they’re more fluid,” offer the party plenty of room for growth.
“We believe, if you have a problem, instead of the knee-jerk reaction of ‘let’s make another government program,’ we recommend, how do we bring the resources of the community to bear directly? Leave all the red tape aside, just having neighbors helping neighbors,” Orrok said.
In addition to drumming up support for his Our America Initiative, which is suing the presidential debate commission to require inclusion of candidates who appear on enough ballots to win the Electoral College, Johnson reminded the crowd that Americans clearly align with Libertarians when asked to describe their political philosophies.
“I believe I would have been the next president of the United States if people had heard what I had to say,” he said, lamenting that it could take a billion dollar campaign to break the stranglehold Democrats and Republicans have on presidential elections.
Johnson listed a balanced federal budget, an end to foreign military interventions, an end to widespread surveillance and marriage equality as issues “that we, as Libertarians, stand for that most Americans agree with.”
Among his proposals — some, like a national consumption tax, don’t have uniform backing from Libertarians — Johnson said he would like to abolish the income tax and the corporate tax, make Social Security voluntary while raising the retirement age, and repeal the PATRIOT Act. He would also abolish the Federal Reserve or, short of that, restrict the bank to keeping down inflation rather than also tasking it with curbing unemployment.
Libertarian National Committee chairman Geoffrey Neale attended last weekend’s convention and told The Statesman he was glad to return to Colorado, which he said “will always have a special place in the heart of Libertarians” because the party was founded here. (The party’s 2008 national convention was also held in Denver.)
The state’s recent spurt in registration and other activity, Neale observed, could be due in part to “the really brave things the voters in Colorado have done,” including the 2012 vote making the state the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize marijuana, a position Libertarians have held since the party’s inception.
“People are finally getting the idea that maybe the Libertarians have been right for 43 years,” he told The Statesman. “It’s also happening the same way with marriage equality, gay rights. We have always been in favor of completely voluntary relationships, keep the government out of the marriage business.” He continued: “These aren’t left issues and right issues,” he said, but questions of human rights that transcend the rigid two-party divide.
Still, Republicans often complain that the mere presence of a Libertarian on the ballot siphons off conservative votes, sometimes throwing the election to Democrats.
Orrok dismissed the notion that Libertarians are spoilers.
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” he said. “If there’s not a Libertarian in the race, there’s not a guarantee that that person would vote at all. It is not a guarantee we’re only taking from the Republicans, it is not a guarantee that vote would have been there without a Libertarian (on the ballot). I would challenge the Republicans to do a little soul-searching and ask, do you have an entitlement mentality when it comes to votes?”
He added that he recently spoke with a top Republican who routinely says that those who agree with the GOP 80 percent of the time should vote Republican.
“Well,” was Orrok’s answer, “there’s only two Republicans I ever agreed with 80 percent. Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. And now Gary Johnson’s a Libertarian. Ron Paul used to be a Libertarian. It is few and far between you’ll find anybody in the Republican Party who holds true Libertarian principles.”
One elected Republican who described himself as “pretty in line with Libertarians” spent Saturday at the convention and told The Statesman he believes in attempting to bridge the divide and make a bid for votes that otherwise might go to Libertarians.
“We’re hearing that Libertarians are taking Republican votes and costing us elections. This is the perfect opportunity for us to reach out and say we’re not far apart on a lot of the issues, Libertarians and Republicans, and just reach out,” said state Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton. “People want to be heard, that their issues are addressed, and I’m here to do that.”
Everett found himself in an unexpected primary rematch with Littleton businessman Loren Bauman — he lost a 2012 primary to Everett — at the previous week’s Jefferson County GOP assembly. The winner of that election faces Democrat Mary Parker in November.
“I’m definitely a Republican,” Everett said. “I would never switch parties, but I think that I can speak the language here. There’s people here who would definitely support me, and we need all hands on deck to beat my Democratic opponent in the fall. If there’s voters here, I’m coming to get them.”
“It’s not about left and right anymore,” Neale said, paraphrasing conservative pundit Matt Drudge. “It’s about authoritarianism vs. libertarianism, it’s about the government mandating what we must do vs. the marketplace coming up with solutions. I’m voting for the marketplace.”