Drawing surprisingly high support, a trio of Libertarian candidates has the potential to disrupt already tight races in the Deep South, where Democrats and Republicans are waging epic battles for Florida governor, Georgia governor, and one of North Carolina’s seats in the U.S. Senate.
In Georgia, nanotechnologist Andrew Hunt is polling at 9 percent in the governor’s race, which is otherwise a dead heat between incumbent Republican Nathan Deal and Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter. In North Carolina, the headlines have focused on the Thom Tillis-Sen. Kay Hagan face-off in November, but quietly amassing 11 percent in the contest is Sean Haugh, the Libertarian candidate running on an anti-war agenda. And in Florida, Adrian Wyllie will be on the November ballot with Gov. Rick Scott and former governor Charlie Crist. Although Wyllie is polling at 4 percent, he’s at 10 percent with Florida’s all-important independent voters and will be on the same November ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana.
None of the three Libertarians is favored to win his races, but with significant shifts afoot on opposition to federal spending, NSA spying, and restrictions on medical marijuana, and a growing acceptance of gay marriage, the Libertarians are increasingly likely to affect the outcome of their races.
Carla Howell, political director for the Libertarian National Committee, says the current election cycle is revealing the Deep South to be rich territory for Libertarians’ stay-out-of-my-life message, which has really been the South’s attitude toward the federal government all along.
“A number of the Southern states are doing very well,” Howell said. “Better than in the past, if not better than ever.”
As proof of the party’s strength in the South, Howell pointed to the strong recruiting class for 2014. Libertarians are up and down the ballot, from Alabama sheriff to Texas county coroner, to statewide races in South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida, along with a 6.5 percent result in last year’s Virginia governor’s race.
“The numbers may seem small, but when you consider third parties have historically gotten 1 and 2 percent, they are significant,” she said.
A race that Howell singled out for its potential to lift the Libertarian candidate is the Florida governor’s race, where Wyllie is polling in double digits with independents with the motto “Keep your lifestyle, your money, your freedom.” Wyllie is the only candidate in the race who is in favor of medical marijuana, which will be the subject of a closely watched ballot initiative in November.
Alex Snitker, who ran as a Libertarian candidate for Florida senator in 2010 and is active in the Wyllie campaign, said his experience running four years ago and seeing the response to the new campaign is like night and day.
“It’s a lot different from when I was running, I can tell you that,” Snitker said. “One of the first things people ask him is, ‘Are you a Democrat or a Republican?’ When he says, ‘I’m a Libertarian,’ it’s like a wall has been lifted.”
Snitker said the issues people are gravitating toward Wyllie on, in addition to medical marijuana, are the economy, unemployment, and civil liberties. “They’re all huge issues that have wide appeal and even more so than they have had in the past.”
Andrew Hunt in Georgia describes a similar set of issues in his race for governor, where he is polling at 9 percent, with Deal at 41 percent and Carter at 37 percent.
“One of the reasons I decided to run was the survey showing that more than 50 percent of people were dissatisfied with both parties,” Hunt said. “Probably 80 percent of people I talk to are dissatisfied with both parties. That means the majority of people are open to voting for a third party. They have to know they have a third choice, and they must know it’s a valid choice.”
But Georgia, like most of the Deep South, remains a deeply religious and socially conservative state, a feature that has made the South the center of the culture wars of years and tough terrain for a conservative pitch that distances itself from social issues. But Hunt said his own religious values are helping him make the case for government getting out of the business of legislating morality.
“I’m a very Christian person,” he said. “I tell people it’s not ours to judge other people. It’s God’s to judge other people. You can have an opinion and share your opinion, but you can allow them to live the life they want to live. There are a lot of people who agree with that.”
Just north of Georgia, in North Carolina’s Senate race, Sean Haugh says his own experience running statewide in 2002 and again in 2014 for the U.S. Senate shows him the growth of libertarianism in the state, where he is polling between 8 percent and 11 percent, in the race that shows Tillis and Hagan essentially tied.
“I think it’s more of a positive identification with Libertarian ideas more than just a willingness to try something different,” Haugh said of his race this time around. “The word is not new anymore. They know it’s out there and they know what it means.”
All three Libertarian campaigns said they see the rest of the country coming around to longtime Libertarian positions on federal spending, gay marriage, the war on drugs, privacy, and ending wars overseas. But it is the disgust with both major parties that seems to be animating many of their new voters.
Alex Snitker, Wyllie’s supporter, said the most positive reaction the Wyllie campaign gets at craft fairs, farmers’ markets, and other events is to a “Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right” sign they bring riffing off a Stealers Wheel lyric.
“We’re stuck in the middle with the population,” Snitker said. “People see the sign and say, ‘You’re dang right they are, man! They’re all clowns and jokers!’”