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The Libertarians

Wild card on the right

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 10, 2008

Democrats and Libertarians in Texas don't agree on too many things, but they cheerfully share antagonism toward the GOP. It's also true that the Libertarian Party of Texas isn't exactly filled with big fans of the Democrats, but in a knife-edge electoral year, the question is how much of a role the state's biggest third party might play in switching the state House.

In 2006, the LPT fielded 88 candidates in state House races. In seats where they ran as the third party, they typically pulled in only 3% (that jumped to about 20% in Republican or Democratic seats where the only challenger was a Libertarian), but the power of that ideological or protest vote shouldn't be underestimated. In 2008, the Libertarians only have 81 House candidates ("It was higher in January, and there's been some attrition over time," noted LPT Executive Director Wes Benedict), and Republicans actively courted some to step out of the way (see "State GOP Fears Libertarian Upset," Aug. 8).

By their own calculations, Libertarians are running in 14 potential swing seats. Four of those they count as being at medium risk of a party switch (all Democrat to Republican, including the Donnie Dippel-Tim Kleinschmidt race in Central Texas HD 17) and four as high risk (all Republican to Democrat, including the Diana Maldonado-Bryan Daniel face-off in HD 52). Even if they only pull in numbers similar to 2006, that could be enough to bolster a Democrat incumbent's margin or to pull away enough disenchanted conservative voters from a Republican to boot them out. Not that Benedict would be much happier with a Democratic House. "Both sides are out there just smearing each other," he said, "rather than talking the truth."

Part of the Libertarian plan has been to pick up some anti-war Democrats and, more numerously, the Ron Paul Republicans and small-government advocates enraged by Gov. Rick Perry's $3 billion cancer research fund, the business franchise tax, and the changing base of the GOP. "Religious extremists have taken over the Republican Party, and they are alienating more libertarian-minded Republic­ans," said Benedict. "They care about abortion and not taxes and freedom." The push was muddied somewhat in the tug-of-war over the party's presidential nomination. (A brief reprise: Libertarian "Draft Ron Paul" efforts collapsed when Paul ran for the GOP's top slot, then Bob Barr picked up the Libertarian nomination and offered Paul his veep slot, but on Sept. 24, Paul snubbed both his own party and the Libertarians by endorsing Constitution Party presidential candidate Chuck Baldwin. Confused yet?) Benedict admits this episode backfired on the LPT. "The Libertarians with Bob Barr screwed up and alienated a lot of our own base," he ruefully concedes.

House Democratic Caucus Leader Jim Dun­nam, D-Waco, is under no illusion that disenchanted free-market, anti-tax Republican voters will suddenly swing to his candidates: Instead, he sees another rip in the big tent the GOP has spent the last two decades sewing together that could benefit both his candidates and the Libertarians if disgruntled fiscal conservatives stream out. "The Republicans pandered to that vote for a long time, and they didn't deliver," he explained, "and that's come back to haunt them."

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