October 26, 2016

Johnson run could push NM Libertarian Party into major party status

Matthew Reichbach

Gary Johnson

New Mexico could see a Libertarian primary election on the same day as the Democratic and Republican primaries in 2018.

That will depend on the outcome of this year’s presidential election and if the state’s Libertarian Party can boost its membership numbers.

Currently the Libertarian Party is considered a minor party in New Mexico, along with the Green and Constitutional parties. But if at least 5 percent of voters in New Mexico vote for the party’s presidential nominee, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party will be on its way to be considered a “major party” in the state and qualify for its own primary election.

Johnson is currently polling in the 5 to 10 percent range nationally, but in New Mexico he is polling as high as 24 percent.

The boost to major party status would mean Libertarian Party candidates for public office would not need to collect as many petition signatures to qualify for the ballot. The Libertarian Party would also be able to hold state-funded primary elections.

In addition to Johnson winning more than 5 percent of the vote, the Libertarian Party also needs to see increase membership numbers before Gov. Susana Martinez issues a proclamation for the primary elections in January 2018.

Libertarian Party of New Mexico Executive Director Burly Cain said he’s confident the party will gain the estimated 800 members they will need to get on the primary ballot in 2018.

“I think we will have major party status by the end of next year,” Cain said.

One “big advantage” major parties have is party name recognition, University of New Mexico political scientist Lonna Atkeson said.

“Anyone can run in those parties, but the benefit is you become a name brand,” Atkeson said.

If the Libertarian Party does make major party status, it wouldn’t be a first for a third party in New Mexico.

The Green Party of New Mexico achieved major party status a number of times since gubernatorial candidate Robert Mondragon received more than 5 percent of the vote in 1994. That same year, Johnson—then a Republican and a political newcomer—won the race for governor of New Mexico against Mondragon and incumbent Democrat Bruce King. Some blamed Mondragon for splitting the liberal vote and opening the door for Johnson.

At least two down-ballot candidates in New Mexico are either registered with the Libertarian Party or leaning that way but but not running in the Libertarian Party.

A. Blair Dunn, the son of Republican New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Aubrey Dunn, is running as a Republican to unseat Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. Dunn previously told NM Political Report while he is registered as a Republican, he has “very strong” libertarian leanings.

Joe Nichols, a candidate for state House of Representatives, is running against incumbent Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, as an independent. Nichols, however, sits on the state’s Libertarian Party central committee.

Nichols speculated that many libertarian-minded New Mexico candidates run as a member of a major party simply because entry to the race is easier. He pointed to Ron Paul, a noted libertarian who served in Congress as a Texas Republican, as someone who gained more traction in a major party than in a minor party.

“I’m sure there’s people [in New Mexico] that are like that right now,” Nichols said. “Running as a minor party candidate, people overlook you.”

The shift to major party status for an anti-status quo party like the Libertarians could cause concern, Nichols said.

Currently, the state’s Libertarian Party can vet candidates before they run in the general election.

“You want candidates who are going to push the Libertarian philosophy,” Nichols said.

As a major party, Libertarian candidates would simply need signatures to get on the primary election ballot.

“It does come with the good and the bad,” Nichols said. “Overall as a party we would just have to learn to deal with bad and take the good.”

Libertarian activists expressed a similar sentiment this year during the national Libertarian Party convention about Johnson’s pick for vice president, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. Like Johnson, Weld was previously a  Republican. Weld registered as a Libertarian shortly before Johnson asked him to run for vice president. Weld narrowly won the spot on the Libertarian Party presidential ticket while facing criticism from party members more focused on ideology.

Atkeson acknowledged some of the perceived downsides to becoming a major party, but said ultimately, “It’s all advantages.”