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Libertarians gain ground in uphill fight

Former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party candidate for president Gary Johnson greets supporters on election night 2016. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Though he’s not on the ballot in this year’s general election, Gary Johnson remains the lifeline for the Libertarian Party in New Mexico.

The Libertarian Party first secured major party status in New Mexico after Johnson won 9% of the vote here during his 2016 run for president.

Thanks to the performance of other Libertarian candidates during the 2018 general election, the Libertarian Party maintains”major party” status in New Mexico through 2020 election cycle.

Election laws grant major party status to the parties whose candidate achieves 5% of the vote in a presidential, gubernatorial or statewide election until the next general election.

Major party status makes it easier to get the party’s candidates’ names on the ballot. Independent and minor party candidates have to collect more petition signatures to do so.

Johnson, who has homes in Santa Fe and Taos, has twice run for president as the Libertarian Party nominee, the first time in 2012 when he managed to attract 1% of the overall vote.

He did much better the second time. With former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld as a running mate, he finished third again in the 2016 presidential election – and some argue spoiled victory for Hillary Clinton – with nearly 4.5 million votes and 3.3% of the total count. That was by far the Libertarian Party’s best finish in a presidential race.

The party has mostly been spinning its wheels since its founding in 1971 in terms of winning elections. While Libertarian candidates have scored some notable victories around the country, a Libertarian candidate has yet to win a legislative or statewide office election in New Mexico.

However, in 2018, state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn Jr. switched his party affiliation from Republican to Libertarian, becoming the first Libertarian in the nation to hold a statewide office.

But the Libertarian Party has begun to show signs of gaining traction in recent years. There are more than 600,000 voters registered as Libertarian across the country, having gained more than 100,000 new members nationwide since the past presidential election.

Voter registration data posted by the Secretary of State’s Office shows that, as of last month, there were 12,107 registered Libertarians in New Mexico. That’s a 24% increase, up from 9,182, from just two years ago.

“I do believe that most people are Libertarians, they just don’t know it,” Johnson said when asked about the party’s growing popularity in a recent phone interview.

Generally, the party’s philosophy promotes personal freedom and individual rights, as long as they don’t infringe upon the freedoms and rights of anyone else. And who can’t agree with that? he asks.

But Johnson says the two-party system is so imbedded as part of the “bone marrow” of American politics, it’s difficult for any political third party to break through.

“It’s a two-party system and that’s the reality,” he said. “Can a third party overcome? Hmm … It hasn’t happened yet.”

Free to choose

Chris Luchini is chairman of the Libertarian Party of New Mexico and was Johnson’s campaign manager in Los Alamos County during his past presidential bid. He helped the former governor win the highest percentage of the vote in any county in the country during the 2016 election.

He’s also one of 22 Libertarians on the ballot in November, running for a the District 3 position on the Public Regulation Commission.

A physicist who worked for NASA and briefly at Los Alamos National Laboratory before starting up a green energy business and software company based on physical system modeling, Luchini says he’s more than qualified to serve on the PRC. But …

“I’m extremely realistic about my chances of winning,” said Luchini, who is running against Democrat Joseph Maestas, a former mayor of Española and Santa Fe city councilor. “We’re a one-party state in New Mexico. Two-thirds of voters never vote for anyone other than their own party, and I think that’s going to be especially true this year. You can look at the voter registration in the district and probably have a good idea what the outcome will be.”

Chris Luchini, state chairman of the Libertarian Party of New Mexico, is one of more than 20 Libertarians on ballots across the state. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

That doesn’t bode well for Luchini or just about any other Libertarian candidate on the ballot. About 45% of registered voters in New Mexico are Democrats and another 30% are Republicans. Even with a jump in numbers in the past two years, Libertarians make up less than 1% of registered voters in the state.

But Luchini says more people are turning Libertarian under the current political landscape.

“Unlike the other political parties, we have a coherent political philosophy,” he said.

The other parties operate under the influence of pressure groups and the almighty dollar, he says. And while Republicans claim to promote small government and Democrats say they stand for the “little guy,” neither really does, he says.

“There’s barely daylight between them as far as what they do,” he said.

The official Libertarian Party platform states, “We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

So what’s the party’s stance on wearing masks?

“If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask,” Luchini said, adding that people should also consider the equal rights of others. “If you’re sick and don’t wear a mask, that’s assault, that’s aggression. You shouldn’t be doing that.”

Luchini says the party opposes an outright mask mandate.

“Just because we don’t support a mandate doesn’t mean we think it’s a good idea to not wear a mask,” said Luchini, who says he wears one when he’s in public. “Just like we support your right to take any drug you want, but we don’t think that’s a good idea, either.”

Uphill battle

Political analyst Brian Sanderoff says the Libertarian Party has an uphill battle making inroads, also citing the two-party system as an obstacle.

“It would take an exceptional candidate for them to win, given the strength of the two-party system in New Mexico,” he said.

Former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party candidate for president Gary Johnson greets supporters on election night 2016. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Sanderoff pointed out that even as a two-term governor, Johnson, who was a Republican when he was governor of the state from 1995 to 2003, captured less than 10% of the vote in New Mexico when he ran for president in 2016, and 15% when he ran for a U.S. Senate seat two years later.

But Sanderoff noted that pieces of the Libertarian Party’s philosophy have appeal across the political spectrum.

“A Libertarian platform could attract both liberals and conservatives,” he said.

He noted that Libertarians generally support such issues as gun rights, smaller government and fewer taxes, like many on the right. But the philosophy also favors a woman’s right to choose on abortion, LGBTQ rights and legal use of marijuana, like those on the left.

Johnson, who grew a handyman business into a multi-million-dollar enterprise before he was elected governor and later served as CEO of a cannabis company, says the only way the Libertarian Party will grow is to get more people to run for office as Libertarians – and win.

The two-party system remains an obstacle, though, and the Commission on Presidential Debates isn’t helping, he said.

“They say the debate commission is nonpartisan, but give me a break,” said Johnson, who was locked out of presidential debates by the commission when he was a candidate.

The commission bases who is allowed to participate on polling, but some of those polls don’t even include third-party candidates, he argued.

The other big obstacle is money. It takes a well-financed campaign to win elections these days. “But no one will open their pocketbook unless they think you can win,” he said.

Luchini agreed. He says the party needs to chip away at the two-party system by getting more Libertarians on the ballot – and getting voters to break away from their old habits.

“The biggest thing for us is that most voting is tribal. People tend to vote the way their parents voted,” he said. “The way we’re going to break the culture is for people tired of the two-party system to break away from that.”


Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove incorrect information regarding the duration of the Libertarian Party of New Mexico’s major party status.

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