Getting elected as a third-party candidate is no easy feat in the United States.
In fact, the deck is so stacked against alternative candidates — courtesy of gerrymandered voting districts that favor one of the major parties, ballot access laws that make it impossible for third parties to gain momentum with each passing election cycle, or public debates that only invite Democrats and Republicans to participate — that it is practically impossible.
But the Libertarian Party has created a model to bypass this hurdle, and it is working out swimmingly for them at the moment. Since the 2016 election, an increasing number of elected legislators have switched their official party affiliation from one of the major parties to Libertarian.
It all started with Nebraska State Senator Laura Ebke. Ebke, an elected Republican, became increasingly disenfranchised with the trajectory of her party.
“I got frustrated with some of my colleagues who don’t recognize civil liberties and don’t seem to agree with getting government out of people’s business,” she told the Omaha World-Herald.
To demonstrate her frustration, Ebke made the bold move in June 2016: she swapped the “R” next to her name with an “L.”
Ebke was the first of many disenfranchised legislators to jettison one of the major parties in favor of the third largest party in the United States.
In the last year, Libertarian Party representation in state legislatures quadrupled. (Bear in mind that there are over 7,000 seats in all state upper and lower houses combined; Libertarians occupy 4 of them. Sadly, this is still more than nearly every minor party in the United States.)
Owning up to its libertarian motto of “live free or die,” New Hampshire has become the trendsetter for this mass exodus from mainstream parties to the LP. In the past year, three sitting legislators -- Reps. Caleb Q. Dyer, Joseph Stallcop, and Brandon Phinney -- switched their affiliations. Phinney and Dyer were former Republicans, and Stallcop a Democrat.
“I was not elected to do the bidding of a political party at the expense of my principles,” stated Phinney, who was the most recent to convert.
“Establishment partisan politics do nothing to protect the rights of people, but instead only serve to prop up and expand government with arcane plans to irresponsibly spend our money and enact burdensome regulations on businesses, small and large alike.” - N.H. State Rep. Brandon Phinney (L)
With a growing caucus and improved access to legislation, the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire is poised to enact legislation that reflect the party platform of limited government and strengthened civil liberties, ranging from the abolition of the death penalty to the legalization of recreational marijuana.
So have Libertarians discovered a back door entrance into mainstream politics? The jury is still out if this is a sustainable strategy.
Undoubtedly, the strategy doesn’t entail campaigning as one party and then switching parties after the election. Such a “bait and switch” will only harm the brand.
“I don’t suggest that people run for office with the purpose of changing parties if they’re elected,” Ebke comments in an email interview. “If you run with the intention of doing that, I doubt that you’re going to get elected in any race of significance.”
Ebke suggests the “better strategy for the LP is to keep its eyes open for legislators (and other officials) who seem to be libertarian leaning.” She suggests that US Reps Justin Amash and Thomas Massie are both prime examples of elected Republicans who might be prime targets for such a conversion on the national level.
If candidates remain true to the core principles that got them elected in the first place, they can easily make the case that partisan politics are secondary—especially when those politics are tied to the toxic partisanship of Washington D.C.
Whether or not this strategy is effective will be realized during re-election season. These third party candidates now face a series of new challenges running outside of the mainstream parties. Making the switch to a smaller party means decreased access to the major party funds often needed for re-election.
Ebke is in the midst of fundraising for her re-election, and is thriving on small donations from grassroots donors, since financial support for candidates from her party is minimal. She encourages supporters — donors, voters, and state party leaders — to be prepared and committed to backing and helping this group of legislators.
“And let me be clear —‘helping’ a candidate is not just about being an internet warrior,” Ebke adds. “It’s about knocking on doors, walking in parades, donating money, and phone banking. If the Party politically abandons those who move in their direction, people will quit moving that way.”
The Libertarian Party is often perceived to be an ideologically-driven organization. However, with the nomination of candidates like Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, who often strayed away from party orthodoxy, the ideology that once founded the party appears less rigid, attracting more independent and unaffiliated voters than previous elections.
“A party that is successful will be a big tent,” adds Ebke. “If the Libertarian Party can be tolerant of those who are generally libertarian-minded, but might not agree on every detail, I think it’s got great potential for growth.”
Keeping an open ear to disaffected partisans, who share a common ground on various issues, is the first step in a meaningful and persuasive conversation — one in which all third parties should engage.