With all the talk about Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s impact on the U.S. presidential race, the real X factor may be a governor with conservative cred, former Republican New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Now a Libertarian Party presidential candidate, Johnson announced last week that he would be on the November ballot in Wisconsin. The LP, currently on 34 state ballots, expects to appear on the marquee everywhere.
Unlike previous Libertarian candidates, Johnson has the fiscal and leadership credibility that the party hopes will attract voters. Republicans worry that Johnson will suck votes from presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Ryan, who represents District 1.
The truth is Johnson has a certain appeal among liberal voters too — and that might spell trouble for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
“Johnson represents what more Americans want than either Romney or Obama,” said Carla Howell, Libertarian Party executive director. “There are very large numbers of independent voters these days. Most Americans today are socially tolerant and fiscally conservative, more in line with Gary Johnson’s views.”
As voters focus on jobs and the economy, Johnson’s record as New Mexico governor reads like a Tommy Thompson stump speech, sans references to “ladies and gentlemen.” He vetoed 750 bills, cut taxes 14 times, proposed a statewide education voucher program and balanced New Mexico’s budget without raising taxes.
He proposes to submit a balanced budget to Congress in 2013, a full generation before Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” would accomplish the task. He opposed the Bush bank bailouts — which Ryan supported — and the Obama stimulus package. Johnson also opposed the $70-billion-a-year-and-rising Medicare Part D prescription drug program implemented by President George W. Bush‘s administration — which Ryan supported.
In short, his record as a fiscal conservative could make Romney and Ryan blush.
Johnson’s got similar civil liberties cred on the left. He campaigns on ending the war on drugs, repealing the PATRIOT Act and removing troops from Afghanistan. He outscores Obama on the American Civil Liberties Union Liberty Watch report card.
In short, his record as a civil libertarian delivers the “hope and change” so many Americans thought they would find with Obama.
“A lot of Obama supporters were deeply let down, because he promised all sorts of things, and he didn’t deliver,” said Ben Olson, a former Libertarian Party of Wisconsin chairman. “They didn’t get what they were promised. I think there will be a lot more of that this election too.
“You can look at Obama’s change on gay marriage. He finally realized he had to say something and stake some ground; otherwise, he was going to lose votes. Both sides might be making overtures towards people in the middle — independents. A lot of those people have libertarian ideas,” Olson said.
Johnson has little chance of winning, but that’s not stopping him. His running mate, Judge Jim Gray, likewise a former Republican, has been an outspoken critic of the war on drugs and its tragic, unintended consequences — a position he developed not in a college dorm room but from the lofty promontory of his position on the bench in California.
“People are becoming more aware that he could affect the outcome of this election,” said Howell, who said she thought Johnson could take votes from Romney and Obama. “Once they realize that, he could get in more polls, get more media coverage. It is still possible he could win the election, though it is a long shot. It starts with people realizing he is a factor in this race.”
The most recent third-party candidate to shape a presidential race was Ralph Nader, who ran for the Green Party and took nearly 3 percent of the vote in 2000 — including 97,000 in Florida, where Bush notoriously defeated Al Gore by just hundreds of votes, ultimately giving him the Electoral College edge.
Johnson polls at 5.3 percent of the vote nationally, though pundits question the accuracy of polling at such low numbers. But, in swing states like Wisconsin, Johnson — and 5 percent of the vote — can make a difference.
“If the two parties are close, the third party can have a major impact,” said Art Cyr, political scientist and director of the A.W. Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha. “But what’s much more important is when there’s a really big third-party movement, it means there’s a lot of pressure building in the system, which needs to let off steam.
“(W)hen there’s a really big third-party movement, it means there’s a lot of pressure building in the system, which needs to let off steam.” said Art Cyr.
“Wisconsin voters tend to be very independent in their views. Libertarians have much more upside potential, because they have a much broader potential appeal, although I think libertarians nowadays are more appealing to Republicans,” said Cyr, who noted Nader mainly received votes from liberals in 2000. “I don’t think they’re in it to be a spoiler; they’re in it to make a point. In that sense, more like (1992 independent presidential candidate) Ross Perot, they just want to make a change.”
In 2002, Ed Thompson, Tommy’s younger brother, ran for Wisconsin governor on the Libertarian Party ticket. Thompson the Younger, who used to grumble about “Republicrats,” took 11 percent of the vote and was blamed by many conservatives for handing the election from incumbent Republican Scott McCallum to Democrat Jim Doyle.
Olson doesn’t worry about being tagged a spoiler. McCallum, for example, simply “didn’t earn those votes,” answered Olson. “If they think it’s costing them votes, they will at some point take libertarians seriously.
“Our federal government is a giant piñata: Everybody’s swinging at it, trying to let loose the goodies,” Olson continued. “When I got more involved with libertarians, I thought, ‘I’m not going to vote for the lesser of two evils this time.’ More and more people might feel that way. We thought we’d see hope and change, but essentially nothing is different than when Bush was president — more deficit spending, more wars. The real change is one side now has the reins of power rather than the other side.”
Howell echoed Cyr’s sentiment. “It’s not the point of the campaign (to play spoiler.) The point of the campaign is to offer Americans a choice for a balanced budget, peace in the Middle East, a sane drug policy and other proposals put forth by Gov. Gary Johnson,” she said.
Johnson, it appears, has a similar notion. In a campaign ad, he narrates, “Let’s put our parties and our differences aside one time. Be libertarian with me for one election.”