Libertarians look to make history with ticket
Hope Johnson,Weld can make inroads with major candidates’ high unfavorability
The Libertarian Party put forward the strongest presidential ticket in its history, throwing down the gauntlet in an election that has the two major parties poised to nominate divisive candidates with soaring unfavorability ratings.
Delegates to the Libertarian National Convention chose in separate votes a pair of former Republican governors — New Mexico’s Gary Johnson and Massachusetts’ William Weld — despite objections from party loyalists who booed them as “failed Republicans” and questioned their commitment to party principles.
Mr. Johnson won the party’s presidential nomination on the second ballot with 55.8 percent of the delegate vote, giving him a second shot at the presidency after winning about 1.72 million votes as the party’s candidate in 2012.
While Mr. Johnson’s nomination was all but assured, much less certain was whether the delegation would warm up to Mr. Weld, who joined the party three weeks ago and had been denounced by critics as “Libertarian lite.”
After squeaking onto the ticket with 50.8 percent on the second ballot, Mr. Weld assured the crowd that he would adhere to Libertarian principles while running a race that he said would appeal to both Republican and Democratic voters unhappy with their parties’ nominees.
“This is a national ticket,” Mr. Weld told the crowd at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, Florida.
“Gov. Johnson and I are going to do our level best to make sure that we represent all of the very best ideas and ideals of the Libertarian Party of the United States,” Mr. Weld said. “I believe that in doing that we can offer something meaningful and realistic to the country, the entire country, and that will be a third way.”
Mr. Johnson had urged delegates to support the former Massachusetts governor, saying that the ticket would have little chance of qualifying for the presidential debates or attracting crossover voters without a proven candidate like Mr. Weld.
“Bill Weld was my role model,” said Mr. Johnson, adding that Mr. Weld was “pro-gay, pro-choice and pro-medical marijuana at a time when nobody else was talking about this.”
Even before winning the nomination, Mr. Johnson has shown unprecedented strength for a Libertarian candidate, sometimes polling at 10 percent in a hypothetical three-way presidential race. His 1.72 million votes in 2012 was just under 1 percent of the total but still represented a historic high for the party.
The ticket featuring two established candidates throws another wild card into the unpredictable 2016 presidential campaign, offering a choice for Republicans who refuse to support presumptive nominee Donald Trump, as well as Democrats who have said they will not back likely nominee Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Weld, both two-term governors, actually have more governing experience between them than either the likely GOP or Democratic nominee. Mr. Trump had never sought public office, while Mrs. Clinton served eight years as a senator from New York and four years as secretary of state.
Polls show both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump suffer from historic unfavorable ratings, but so far Republican efforts to recruit a third-party candidate to appeal to #NeverTrump voters have failed to yield fruit.
Unlike other third parties such as the Greens, the Libertarian Party is expected to have a line on presidential ballots in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Party membership and fundraising have also surged since Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas dropped out of the GOP contest, conceding the nomination to Mr. Trump.
Party chair Nicholas Sarwark made it clear that the Libertarians plan to compete financially by aggressively pursuing Republican donors such as Charles and David Koch as well as pro-liberty super PACs.
“There’s back channel communication to suggest to the Koch brothers that the return on their political investment would be a lot higher in the Libertarian Party, and we align better [with] their values than the Republican Party, where donors collectively threw $166 million into a hole and lit it on fire to try and nominate Jeb Bush,” Mr. Sarwark told reporters.
He characterized Mr. Johnson’s nomination as a game changer for funders looking for a presidential candidate to support, adding that he had met with representatives from three super PACs during the convention that are “lacking a candidate to support.”
“I am aware that the Koch brothers through a spokesperson issued a denial that they had been in talks about funding Gov. Johnson’s run, but that was a pre-nomination denial and unrelated to whether or not the parties reached out to them,” Mr. Sarwark said.
Efforts to “fix” the Republican Party are doomed to fail, he said, because the party “is not fixable.”
The Koch brothers, who have spent untold millions supporting Republican candidates, “have not gotten what they wanted out of it, and honestly any party that can encompass Donald Trump and Rand Paul stands for nothing,” said Mr. Sarwark.
Known for their pro-liberty, small-government stance, the Libertarian ticket is poised to pick up voters who are economically conservative but socially liberal.
“At the end of the day, really, we poll from both sides,” said Mr. Johnson. “Look, this is another voice at the table. It’s arguably combining the best of what it is to be a Democrat and the best of what it is to be a Republican, neither of which actually do very well at what they’re supposed to be good at.”
He acknowledged that the party needs to overcome a number of setbacks, starting with media recognition. In order to qualify for national presidential debates, the party must receive 15 percent support in five surveys or more, but Mr. Johnson said the Libertarians are often left off the polls.
The party also has a problem with being taken seriously. At their presidential debate, for example, several candidates came out in favor of stances such as ending driver’s licenses, legalizing all recreational drugs without imposing age restrictions and eliminating all Cabinet departments.
It didn’t help that at one point, a candidate for party chairman performed a striptease on stage, removing everything except his thong and dark socks before telling the crowd, “I’m sorry, that was a dare.”
At the same time, such moments are reflective of a party that has nothing if not a sense of humor. For example, delegates voted to give its Liberty Outreach Award to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump for helping spur interest in the Libertarian Party.
Gary Johnson speaks delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention, in Orlando, Florida.
Libertarian vice presidential candidate William Weld (right) speaks with Joe Hunter, communications director for the Gary Johnson campaign, in Orlando, Florida.