How can a candidate win by losing? By capturing enough of the vote to ensure his third party qualifies for the next election and has a better chance to be heard.
In Arkansas, parties must win 3 percent in gubernatorial and presidential elections to automatically qualify for the next election’s ballot, which is why the Democrats will surely find someone to run against seemingly unbeatable Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2018.
Arkansas’ most organized third party, the Libertarians, failed to reach that standard in 2016, when former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson won 2.65 percent of the presidential vote despite a promising start. That meant the state party had to collect at least 10,000 signatures this year at a cost of about $30,000.
That was a disappointment after doing what the Democrats could not do, which was field a candidate in all four U.S. House races. One was Mark West, a corporate office manager and bivocational Baptist pastor in Oil Trough who won 24 percent of the vote against Rep. Rick Crawford. West has already announced he’s running for governor and appears to be the party’s presumptive nominee. He said in an interview he was disappointed with last year’s results and plans to do much better than 3 percent this year.
That would enable Libertarians next time to apply the money and energy spent collecting signatures to campaigning. And if it’s going to happen, 2018 would seem to be the year. The party has inched half a percent closer each of the past three elections. Johnson won 1.5 percent running for president in 2012, while the candidate for governor, Frank Gilbert, won 2 percent in 2014. After Johnson’s 2.65 percent, the party needs only a slight improvement. With Hutchinson likely to win, maybe voters won’t feel pressured to vote for the Democrat or Republican like they would in a close race. At 40, West is young and aggressive and doesn’t like to lose.
In the electoral sense, the Libertarians won’t be a factor this year, and likely not for a while. West’s initial fundraising goal is $5,000, not nearly enough to mount the barest of ad campaigns. In some states, including Maine and Vermont, voters recently have elected non-major party candidates to major offices. But at the state and national levels, Arkansas is a Republican state except in those pockets where it’s solidly Democratic.
Still, elections aren’t simply about picking winners and losers. They’re also a conversation about what government should look like.
Libertarians are the party of not just less government, but much less. As West pointed out, he’ll be the opposition candidate making the case against Arkansas Works, the program using federal dollars to purchase private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans. Hutchinson embraces it while seeking to shrink it; the Democrat will surely support it wholeheartedly. West also will be the candidate arguing for the fullest gun carry rights in a very pro-gun state. Ultimately, he would cut government far more than Republicans and Democrats would, and more than many voters would as well. His party is composed of two wings, one of them being “anarchists.” He would not go that far, but that’s his party.
Regardless of what you or I think about all that, democracies should foster a rich exchange of ideas, because you never know what can happen when you stir the pot. The Republican Party began as a meeting of antislavery activists in a little white schoolhouse in Wisconsin in 1854. Six years later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Yes, third party candidates lengthen the ballot and can crowd the debate stage, and there’s always the risk they’ll help bad ideas take root. But that’s a risk Americans took starting in 1776 because the alternative is certain – a stale status quo that inevitably hardens power structures and favors the elite.
West said his party is trying to “just give voters another option to look at.” Thanks to more than 10,000 signatures and $30,000, Arkansans will have that option. If 3 percent choose it, the party wins. When ideas are freely discussed and debated, so do voters.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.