Unique factors could help Libertarians draw voters

This fall's elections create an unusual set of circumstances that is giving the Libertarian Party more optimism than usual.
Georgia has not been hospitable to third-party candidates, unlike some states like Vermont, California, Minnesota and New York. Ballot-access laws here require party nominees other than those from the Republicans and Democrats to jump through the same hoops as an independent candidate, such as submitting signatures from 5 percent of the registered voters. In some large counties, that can be 30,000 petitions and as many as 50,000 for a congressional district.
But in the 1990s, the Libertarians somehow got on the ballot for statewide contests, and they've managed to garner at least the required 1 percent of the vote in order to maintain that ballot placement like the Republicans and Democrats.
This year, the party has candidates in the only two statewide races there are, both for the Public Service Commission.
In one, Libertarian David Staples is the only alternative to the Republican incumbent Stan Wise. In the other, the Libertarians have nominated an openly gay, telecommunications consultant, Brad Ploeger, who is drawing new voters to the fold in his bid to best GOP Commissioner Chuck Eaton and Democrat Steve Oppenheimer.
Both contests offer hope for different reasons to the struggling party which normally only claims 2-4 percent of the vote.
"This year, the anti-incumbent sentiment, even among those most closely associated with the majority party, makes both of our candidates in the Public Service Commission races even stronger," notes Brett Bittner, chairman of the Georgia Libertarian Party. "Ethics issues have dogged both Republican incumbents as primary challengers, the various Tea Party groups and ethics watchdogs turned their attention to that area of elected officials' job performance."

Plus, a crappy economy is always bad for incumbents, and rising electric bills and headlines about cost overruns don't improve voters' disposition toward utility regulators either.

Staples lists membership in the high-IQ Mensa International and the Georgia Carry gun-rights group as two assets in addition to being a seventh-generation Georgian. His background is web technologies and once worked for a dot-com company, but he now has an organic farm in Powder Springs with his wife.

His positions aren't too different from Wise's whose main focus is keeping costs low to attract employers. Staples is hoping to paint Wise as too closely tied to the utilities he regulates to be objective, something the commissioner denies.\

For many voters, Staples' main advantage is not being Wise.

"While some would prefer to vote for a major-party candidate, there isn't one in this case. The choice is a vote for someone who looks to be bought and paid for by the industries he is supposed to regulate, or someone who is running on principle," wrote The Albany Journal in its endorsement of Staples.

The Libertarians are hoping to break the 33 percent won when their nominee John Monds was the only challenger on the 2008 ballot against GOP incumbent Doug Everett. While that left Everett with a landslide, it still gave the Libertarians their best showing ever at a time when their nominees for the other PSC race that year garnered only 5 percent in a three-way contest and their presidential nominee, Georgian Bob Barr, pulled less than 1 percent.

To maximize the opportunity, the party is pouring the bulk of its resources and volunteer time this year into Staples' quest. And that doesn't bother Ploeger.

A veteran of long-shot races, Ploeger recognizes how campaign strategies are built on opportunities. Although he's not getting much of the limited Libertarian resources, he is doing his part to widen the party's base.

"He is a community activist in Atlanta, owns his own business and is considered a bridge builder in the Georgia (Libertarian Party) and among policy makers when he is advocating for ballot access and personal rights," said David Chastain, the party's nominee for secretary of state two years ago.

While sexual preference doesn't enter into most utility-regulation matters, Ploeger sees it as a conversation starter with voters who share the Libertarians' live-and-let-live view on social issues.

"It does bring a little bit more interest to my campaign," he said. "... It's actually forcing some groups to look into my campaign."

Also working to the party's advantage, according to Ploeger, is the likelihood that GOP nominee Mitt Romney will easily prevail in Georgia's presidential voting. That frees up Republicans and Democrats with libertarian leanings to vote their preference without fear that doing so will help a candidate they don't want to win.

Those added votes play a crucial role in party building. They show increased viability to potential candidates, donors and pundits. As a party gains momentum election by election, those ripples grow to become waves, and the waves one day become a rising tide.

(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)

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