August 19, 2012

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson may sway voters

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

Gary Johnson isn't a household name in Maine or most other places, yet the Libertarian presidential candidate could become an attractive option at the ballot box for some of the same voters who helped sweep Republicans into power here just two years ago.

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Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson

AP photo

The former New Mexico governor will be on the Nov. 6 ballot in 34 states, including Maine. National pundits say Johnson has no chance of winning the presidency, but some believe he could be a spoiler candidate in several swing states, such as Nevada, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and Colorado. Although Maine isn't among those states, Johnson's level of appeal may signal the future of the Maine Republican Party.

The reason isn't just Johnson's platform of limited government and fiscal conservatism, key tenets of the tea party and the current energy core of the Republican Party.

It's also because an increasingly bitter standoff between establishment Republicans and the so-called liberty movement could spur some tea party voters to abandon the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

Johnson backers certainly hope so.

Jorge Maderal, chairman of the Maine Libertarian Party, said he and other Johnson supporters were talking with "disgruntled" tea party voters and backers of Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas, whose bid for a speaking role at the Republican National Convention has been blocked thus far by Romney.

"It's Ron Paul's group. It's the tea party group. It's the sovereignty food group, desperate groups," Maderal said. "They're separated and isolated politically. Now with Gary Johnson in the race, you're going to see a lot of people jumping ship."

Carla Howell, executive director of the national Libertarian Party in Washington, D.C., agreed. Howell noted that Johnson will be a keynote speaker Aug. 24 at the Paul Festival in Tampa, Fla.

She said many Paul supporters will gravitate to Johnson, who developed a reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative while governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003. According to his campaign biography, he vetoed 750 bills while governor, earning the moniker "Governor Veto." He cut taxes 14 times.

"Having met lots of Ron Paul supporters, especially young groups, ... tea party groups, there's a lot of receptiveness to Gary Johnson," Howell said. "They don't like Mitt Romney. They don't want that choice. They don't want to just drop out and be inactive. They see Gary Johnson as offering a lot of the same things as Ron Paul."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, believes some defection from the Republican Party to Johnson is likely but difficult to quantify.

"Gary Johnson is not going to get more than a percent, probably less than a percent, nationally," Sabato said. "Mainers have a stronger tendency to support third-party candidates, so it's always possible that Johnson's percentage will be higher in Maine than it is elsewhere; but, you know, look, what chance does Romney really have to carry Maine anyway? Not great."

An exodus in November, if it happens, may have less to do with electoral politics than the future of the Republican Party.

The highly mobilized tea party faction was key to 2010 Republican victories in Congress and Maine state government.

However, here and elsewhere, the movement is increasingly at odds with the so-called party establishment -- and, in particular, Romney.

In Maine and six other states, the intra-party squabble surfaced publicly in a battle about delegates elected during the state convention. Establishment Republicans are challenging 20 Maine delegates who support Paul. Romney supporters fear the delegates will disrupt the Republican National Convention, from Aug. 27 to Aug. 30 in Tampa, Fla., an event that's designed to unify support for the nominee.

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