It has been a roller coaster four-year election cycle for Iowa’s third-largest political party.
After a historic high mark set in the 2016 presidential election and a historic slate of candidates in the 2018 midterms, the Libertarian Party of Iowa faces a rebuilding year and seemingly long odds of recapturing its recent success.
Ostensibly, the party’s goal in 2020 is to win Iowa’s six electoral votes for the Libertarian presidential ticket and elect the first Libertarian to the U.S. Senate. Realistically, though, the goal is to earn 2 percent in the presidential race.
2 percent is the magic number for third parties in Iowa. Presidential and gubernatorial candidates who earn that small share are entitled to major-party status, along with a list of special legal privileges usually afforded only to Republicans and Democrats.
The party’s hopes may lie with a Cedar Rapids man and his campaign trailer.
A proven path to 2 percent
Rick Stewart, candidate for U.S. Senate, is one of the two Libertarians who will appear on every Iowa ballot this year. He’s touring the state with his truck and branded trailer, handing out flyers in small-town business districts and showing up to newsrooms to ask for interviews, promoting both himself and the party’s presidential nominee.
“The best defense against the Democrats and Republicans is to vote Libertarian. Iowa needs a Libertarian senator because it’s clear the Republicans and Democrats have not done a good job governing America. Just one Libertarian senator from Iowa would change the whole equation,” Stewart recently told me.
Stewart’s policy platform falls into three categories: end all wars (foreign wars, drug war, tariff wars), end economic nonsense (balance the budget and reform entitlement programs) and simplify government (shorter bills and sunsets on spending).
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Already, Stewart is one of the most successful alternative politicians in modern Iowa history: He won 2.4 percent as an independent for U.S. Senate in 2014, 26 percent for Linn County sheriff in 2016, and 3 percent as a Libertarian for secretary of agriculture in 2018.
Stewart’s bid for sheriff in 2016 earned national attention with a video where he vowed to “chase drug war criminals with a vengeance,” by which he meant politicians who oversee drug prohibition.
“If you come to my town I will hunt you down and ship you to The Hague, where they have a special court for scum like you,” Stewart said in the ad, although a Gazette fact check found the sheriff does not have authority to send people to international court.
Stewart knows how to get to 2 percent, but it’s not clear if that will carry over to the presidential ticket, the only one that matters for winning major party status.
Started from the bottom now they’re here
Libertarian presidential nominee Jo Jorgensen has about 2 percent support in Iowa, according to two polls released earlier this month by Monmouth University and the New York Times/Siena College. That’s barely cutting it, and the figure is well within the polls’ margins of error.
The Libertarian Party of Iowa earned major party status with Gary Johnson’s 3.8 percent performance in 2016. That entitled Libertarians to major-party perks, such as primaries and the ability to nominate candidates through conventions.
In 2018, two Libertarian candidates competed in a statewide primary for governor for the first time. The Libertarian nominee, Jake Porter, got far more media coverage than previous candidates. He didn’t end up getting in the debates, but he earned attention when the Democratic candidate and the editorial board for Iowa’s second-largest newspaper (this one) called for his inclusion.
Things were looking up. With their newly earned primaries and conventions, Iowa Libertarians in 2018 nominated candidates for six statewide offices, all four U.S. House seats and more than a dozen down-ballot legislative and county races.
However, Porter finished about 5,000 votes shy of the 2 percent required to maintain party status. In the meantime, the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature also passed a law making it more difficult for third-party candidates to get on the ballot.
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The GOP law bumped up the deadline for independent and third-party candidates to file ballot petitions from August to March. With an infectious disease pandemic hitting the country just before the deadline, it was impossible for Libertarians to assemble a large slate of candidates.
Erecting barriers to ballot access is a common tactic used by establishment parties to limit voters’ choices, out of fear that third parties might spoil elections.
“Voters are increasingly looking to third parties and rather than allow their ideas to compete against ours on a level playing field, the Republicrats have done the opposite. They’ve done everything they can to ratchet up ballot access and party identification policies to make it harder and harder for people to get on the ballot, even though they exempt themselves from those requirements,” Spike Cohen, the Libertarian vice presidential nominee, told me this past week.
This year, Libertarians are running in just eight Iowa races — president, U.S. Senate, Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District and a handful of state legislative races. That means fewer candidates running local campaigns who can do outreach on behalf of the presidential campaign.
“I’m not a fortuneteller. I don’t try to guess what 1.2 million voters are gonna do. My job is just to convince them one at a time, and I think I’m pretty good at it,” Stewart said.
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