The Democratic Opportunity
The Democrats are historically weak. At a presidential level they’re reasonably secure, having won 6 of the 7 popular votes since 1992, but in Congress, the governorships, and the state legislative level, they’re very weak and it’s hard to overstate the devastation the party has had down ticket in the last 8 years. To make matters worse, the party has aggressively centralized as the DNC has rotted the last 8 years as Obama has neglected the institution that he ran against in 2008. They are not in a good spot.
This is good news for libertarians. In large swaths of the country the Democratic Party only meanders on by rejecting liberalism, which one could note by looking at the über-moderate governors of Colorado and Louisiana John Hickenlooper and John Bel Edwards or other odd men or such as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. In past years the Democrats have taken some particularly odd routes just to make up a legislative gap, such as running a paleoconservative against Lindsey Graham in 2006, running Reagan administration member Jim Webb in the 2006 Virginia Senate race, and opting not to run a candidate in 2014 in order to give independent Greg Orman a shot. Heck, sometimes the Democrats know their odds are so poor that they don’t even bother to run a candidate, as was the case in Indiana in 2006 when Libertarian Steve Osborn, due to being the only opposition, netted 12.6% against Senator Richard Luger. Whereas the Republicans operate on a more conservative to less conservative spectrum typically, the Democrats, more a pragmatic coalition of demographics and interest groups than a real ideological institution, have opted to bend their definition of “Democrat” considerably when need be.
What is the relevance of all this? Libertarians who are supposed to be above partisanship face the issue of tying themselves to one of the two major parties. It’s a strategy that has worked well occasionally, but the tactic doesn’t work when said party is out of office or when the incumbent is disinterested in the ideas. Woodrow Wilson was a Progressive Democrat and Theodore Roosevelt was a Progressive Republican, and by transcending party lines the progressive movement made great gains. There is much fuss about Rand Paul, but where is the Democrat equivalent? The closest thing to a Libertarian Democrat in recent years was the aged Mike Gravel, a throwback to the heyday of the fusion between libertarians and the anti-war left.
Democrats need to run very different sorts of candidates (or let non-Democrats run in their stead) to win seats in very red areas, or at least deny them to Republicans. Libertarians need to be represented in both political parties, perhaps gain seats via their own party, and achieve a large bipartisan caucus. Put the two needs together and you have a strategy.
The Republicans have gerrymandered much of the country so as to be inaccessible to Democrats, but a Libertarian running in a district could perhaps breach the gap. In Alaska it was Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who offered to run as a Libertarian, who beat a Tea Party Republican on 2010 and did so again in 2016, both times uniting Democrats and Libertarians behind her mainstream Republican coalition. The decline of the blue dog faction has left the Democratic Party weak in large swaths of the country, and without a center-right faction, but a libertarian faction could promote healthy growth of the party in otherwise unreachable parts of the country and bolster the New Democrat faction against the strengthening progressive wing.
A combination of Libertarians running as Democratic surrogates in some areas and outright running as Democratic candidates in others could result in big gains for the liberty movement, and is a tactic that ought to be considered.
* Jacob Linker is a Campus Coordinator with Students For Liberty and the State Chair of Young Americans for Liberty in his state.