Saturday, August 20, 2005

A curious exodus


It's safe to say that things are touch and go for the Libertarian Party right now. It's a party in the process of finally deciding what it's going to be (a political party) and going through some pretty wrenching procedures (ending the social-club-like practice of charging for membership, and therefore ending the practice of splitting membership fees between state and national organizations, to name two) to get from here to there. Voters in some states may soon find that they are denied their right to register as Libertarians or have their party's candidates represented on the ballot. Over the last century, the two wings of the Uniparty have progressively legislated to make it more difficult for "third" parties to compete in the United States than in, say, Iran.

Looks like tough times ahead. There's little doubt that the LP will survive and continue to elect public officials, but the 2006 election cycle may be devoted more to rebuilding dilapidated organizational structures and creating new ones from scratch than to seeking electoral victories.

It's not surprising, given the current situation and the party's recent history, to see some prominent past LP candidates leaving for greener pastures. It's happened before (Murray Sabrin and Andrew Horning come to mind), it will happen again, and it's happening now:

Scott Bludorn, former president of the Cook County, Illinois LP, has thrown his hat into the GOP primary for a state legislative seat, and Dennis Hawver of Kansas -- a former LP gubernatorial candidate -- is now seeking the same seat as a Republican. Word on the Internet "street" is that Bruce Cohen of California will be seeking election to Congress as a Republican, after having chased that same seat as the LP's candidate.

So, what's different about these three candidates? Well, when Sabrin and Horning were ran as Republicans, the GOP was in the ascendant -- it had taken control of Congress and then the White House and was clearly on a roll. In 2006, however, going Republican can only be characterized as like unto rats (no personal insult intended -- I don't question these guys' motives or sentiments) swimming toward a sinking ship.

Granted, the LP hasn't been successful as yet. Granted, the chances of it becoming successful are debatable. But if you're going to leave a party that hasn't succeeded, why would you join a party which is on its way down?

The Democrats have made it clear that they are preparing to tack into the political wind; Howard Dean has been campaigning for his party in areas which he characterizes as "libertarian" and has promised a "western strategy." That promise may be stillborn, but at least it's being made, and at least it's being made by a party which is well-positioned to win elections next year and which is willing to make significant concessions toward civil liberties and fiscal responsibility in order to close the deal. The Republicans, on the other hand, have ignored the policy proposals of their party's libertarian wing for more than two decades now. They've always been a party of big government, but in the last four years they've surpassed the Democrats as the party of big government.

Let's look at this from a practical perspective:

- Running against an incumbent in his own party's primary is almost always a losing bet. A bad incumbent is still an incumbent. The parties like success, and they don't tend to want to fix what ain't broke by backing a primary challenger to their proven winner. That means that the only realistic prospect for Libertarians entering the GOP is to seek nomination to open seats.

- You are an LP activist who has run for office on your party's ticket. A lot of people may not know who you are, but the chair of your county's GOP damn sure knows who you are. You're the guy whose name was listed across the ballot from their candidate's name two years ago. You likely haven't walked precincts for the GOP, worked phone banks for the GOP, attended rallies for the GOP, written op-eds for the GOP or even voted for the GOP's candidates in the recent past. You may have even cost their last candidate the election. It's safe to say that support for you within your party's leadership is going to be lukewarm at best -- and if you are opposed in the primary by someone who has walked precincts for the GOP, worked phone banks for the GOP, attended rallies for the GOP, written op-eds for the GOP, voted for the GOP's candidates, and perhaps even represented the GOP in previous elections, you're going to be running not only against that candidate, but against the party's establishment.

- And, finally, the GOP has experienced the thrill of victory in recent years. They're about to experience the agony of defeat again, but that's not something they intend to face and do something about. They're going to stick with the same formulas that worked for them in 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004. Only after those formulas have failed are they going to be willing to consider a new approach ... and their current approach is anything but libertarian.

I'm not saying that it's impossible for any of these three candidates to win.

- Cohen's district is traditionally very Republican and he's done his best to create a reasonably high, positive public profile for himself. A little bird tells me that he may also have the support, whether tacit or explicit, of the retiring incumbent. Then again, the local GOP machine may already have a candidate in mind for anointing and laying on of hands. Cohen's paid his dues ... but has he paid them to the GOP?

- Bludorn's district is Republican and in addition to his association with the LP he seems to generally be publicly identified as a "conservative activist" and appears to have significant grassroots GOP support (he polled 8.2% in his last LP run for the seat -- not bad for an LP candidate in a three-way race). He may have a chance if the incumbent, Sid Mathias, decides to run for an open seat in the state senate, but that chance slims way down if it's an incumbent-challenger primary.

- Kansas is very Republican, too. The sitting Democrat governor, Katherine Sebelius, is favored for re-election by Campaigns & Elections magazine's "Political Oddsmaker", but only by odds of 6 to 5. Unfortunately, Hawver already faces two opponents: A "frequent candidate" type who is likely to split any insurgent vote that might lean toward Hawver in the primary ... and the Speaker of the Kansas House of Representative. The odds of a past LP candidate who garnered 1% in his last election outing beating an experienced, establishment political leader are exceedingly low.

Jumping party lines is not a silver bullet to make losing candidates into winning candidates. And, to the extent that party defection makes sense in the coming three years, the Democrats are just a better bet. They'll be cutting more slack to newbies, because they're hungry for the victories have eluded them for the last decade, and in general Democrats are likely to do better than Republicans in the general elections.

I wish Bruce Cohen, Scott Bludorn and Dennis Hawver the best of luck. I'd rather have a libertarian with an "R" next to his name in office than a non-libertarian of any party designation. But to the extent that I can offer real support of the volunteer and financial variety to candidates next year, I think I'll stick with the libertarian Democrat slate and pull for candidates like Frank Gonzalez of Florida, who polled 27% of the vote in his last run ... and did it on the LP ticket.

Addendum/Errata, 08/22/05 --

Above, I wrote:

- "Word on the Internet 'street' is that Bruce Cohen of California will be seeking election to Congress as a Republican ..."

and

- "A little bird tells me that he may also have the support, whether tacit or explicit, of the retiring incumbent ..."

Mr. Cohen just emailed me to let me know that the "street" -- and my little bird -- are incorrect. Here are a couple of relevant quotes:

"All of the nice things you said about me being good looking, smart, tall, desired by women and having a good public image are true. Even better news is that the little bird telling you I had switched parties is incorrect. I am still a registered Libertarian and plan to stay."

and

"I never considered changing parties for a moment. If you don't mind, please put said information on your blog. You are also welcome and encouraged to put my phone number [949-813-8001] and e-mail: bruce@getbruce.Com ... We're raising money at a breakneck pace to do TV advertising with."

Best of luck to Bruce, and thanks for helping me get it right!

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