Even in losing, Libertarians see victory on election night

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, center, greets supporters at his election night party Tuesday in Albuquerque.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Donald Trump’s national victory may have gone down as the biggest surprise of election night, but Oklahoma Libertarians notched a surprising win, too.

No, their candidates didn’t win a single race on the state’s ballot. But against all odds and expectations, Libertarians managed to bank enough votes that the party’s candidate will automatically be recognized again in Oklahoma for the 2018 gubernatorial election.

“I think they are probably the biggest winners [Tuesday] night in Oklahoma in many ways,” said John R. Wood, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Oklahoma.

This state has long been a notoriously difficult and expensive one for third-parties trying to squeeze onto the ballot, and Libertarian candidates weren’t included for 16 years.

“Oklahoma’s ballot access requirements are so onerous that we hadn’t attempted this since 2000,” said Nicholas Sarwark, the party’s national committee chairman, in an email.

Oklahoma law requires third-parties to collect nearly 25,000 signatures to be recognized. To stay on future ballots, a party’s top-billing candidate must garner at least 2 1/2 percent of the popular vote.

Otherwise, the party has to start the signature collection process all over again.

Sarwark said Libertarians spent more than $100,000 to get recognized in Oklahoma, which amounted to about 14 percent of the $750,000 the party spent across 17 states for ballot access.

Still, he considers the Oklahoma foray a victory, in part because Oklahomans voted for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson at nearly double the national average, he said. Also, Johnson’s showing here — he picked up 5.7 percent of the vote — guarantees Libertarians ballot access in 2018.

“In 2018, our supporters’ donations and our volunteers’ time can go directly into running the Libertarian candidates and campaigns that Oklahomans are clearly yearning for, rather than being sunk into petition drives where we pester people in all weather for their signatures just so we can get a seat at the table,” he said.

Nearly 3,600 Oklahomans identified as Libertarians ahead of this week’s election. Thousands more voted that way.

Some were undoubtedly driven to Johnson because they didn’t like either of the major parties’ candidates, Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton. It was a common refrain among voters.

“It’s not surprising that so many Oklahomans became disgusted with the so-called choice between a war-monger and a corrupt crony-capitalist,” Sarwark said.

Trump collected nearly two-thirds of all votes for president in Oklahoma, or 947,934. In what Wood termed “an incredible outcome,” Johnson had 83,334. Clinton had 419,788.

The amount spent to get Libertarians on the ballot “left virtually nothing for campaigning,” said Robert T. Murphy, 68, a Norman resident who launched an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate against incumbent and eventual winner James Lankford.

Murphy garnered 3 percent of the vote in his race.

“Two years from now, I’m hoping that we can use that [money] and more to do some real advertising and affect the way people rally think about politics,” he said.

The party believes in free economic policies, more tolerant social policies and a non-interventionist foreign policy. Murphy said he’d like to see horse racing allowed in every county and laws that prohibit the seizure of homesteads for failure to pay taxes.

“It’s a whole new world for Libertarians,” he said. “Of course, now we have to build the party. As long as we’re still on the ballot, we still have a chance to be a real political party.”

Wood predicted that automatic access will give Libertarians a leg up.

“I think they will certainly be more competitive in Oklahoma and nationwide,” he said. “They can focus on finding candidates who see the Libertarians as being legitimate and hungry to remain on the ballot.”

Murphy is currently planning to run again in 2018, though he hasn’t yet decided which post he’ll seek.

“As long as I’m healthy and still alive, I don’t see that I’m going to retire from it anytime soon,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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