Don’t restrict the OKLP primary
Oklahoma allows parties to open their primaries to Independents but not to voters registered with another party. In the history of the Oklahoma Libertarian Party only once has the OKLP not had Independents participate in its primary, but that was because it was not allowed. That was in 1980 when Jim Rushing got 24 votes to Frank Robinson’s 20 and was nominated for Congress. The OKLP wanted to open their primary to the Republicans and Democrats as well in 2000, and sued after the state said no. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, but they sided with the state. Nevertheless, the OKLP has used the ability to open the primary to Independents as an opportunity for outreach, both as an invitation to those voters who have not declared for either of the two establishment parties and as way to generate media coverage. However, in 2016 there was some consternation as the ‘wrong’ candidate won, and this has some Libertarians wanting to close the door to Independents. This would not only be a tactical mistake that could cost the OKLP dearly in the 2018 general election, but it would do little to stymie the outside influences that some fear.
The OKLP was on the ballot in 2016 after having been absent since 2000. In that year the party used the primary to good effect by having three candidates for Corporation Commission. As hoped, none of the three won an outright majority, resulting in a runoff. However, instead of going through with the plan, Whitney Boutin dropped out, leaving Roger Bloxham as the nominee. This saved state taxpayers over $200,000, a fact that did not go without notice.
In 2016 another primary was created, as Dax Ewbank and Robert Murphy both filed for U. S. Senate. This was the only statewide primary for any party. Like the three-way contest sixteen years earlier, this was done in order to have an opportunity for Independents to vote Libertarian. However, Murphy won even after endorsing Ewbank. There was much consternation over the result, especially when analysis seemed to show that it was the Independents, who heavily outnumbered registered Libertarians, that gave the race to Murphy. The lesson many want to draw is that Independents won’t do what we want, but what we ought to learn instead is how to better market ourselves to the voters in order to get the desired results. Until only registered Libertarians are allowed to vote in the general election, we need to continue to improve at preaching to reach beyond the choir. The simple fact is that the vast majority of those Independents knew virtually nothing about either candidate and most found the name Robert T. Murphy to be more appealing than the name Dax Ewbank. Getting better at understanding how voters respond to the information they get is an essential function of a political party. Refusing to take the opportunity to get that better understanding is myopically short-sighted.
The truth about primaries is that sometimes the voters pick candidates that the party wouldn’t. The GOP certainly wasn’t happy to have David Duke get elected to the Louisiana House or become their candidate for Governor two years later. In 2010 the Democrats nominated an unemployed veteran for US Senate in South Carolina and in Oklahoma they chose perennial candidate and local eccentric Jim Rogers. There still may be hope for Virginia ‘Blue Jeans’ Jenner.
A genuinely undesirable candidate, such as David Duke, is certainly problematic. But there are two reasons why closing the primary to party members only would not be helpful. First, the only primaries the OKLP have had have been manufactured by the party. A primary can only weed out an unwanted individual if somebody else has also filed for the seat. Second, the only instances of unacceptable candidates I have ever seen have been people who identify as Libertarian, such as Augustus Sol Invictus, or people that the party has brought in to try to gain electoral success, such as 2008 presidential candidate Bob Barr. If the cabal of plotting socialists or the gang of Tea Party rejects that are supposed to be attempting to infiltrate the Libertarian Party are real I’d like someone to show me an undoctored photograph of them.
This would all be immaterial except that elections, even alternative party primaries, have consequences beyond just the matter of who won and who lost. At present over 4,000 voters in Oklahoma are registered as Libertarian, blowing all previous records out of the water. Making a rosy assumption that that number would double by the time next year’s elections roll around, a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate that wins the primary with six or seven thousand votes or less can, and will, be thoroughly disregarded by the media. On the other hand, if Independents are allowed to participate in the primary and that same Libertarian gubernatorial candidate successfully generates support from them and wins with twenty thousand votes or more, it will be difficult for that candidate to be ignored. The one factor that will do more to determine how successful the LP candidate for governor will be is if that candidate is in the gubernatorial debates. A primary that is open for Independents to participate creates an opportunity to show that a spot in those debates is deserved, a closed primary virtually guarantees that no spot will be made available. The average vote percentage for Libertarian gubernatorial candidates since 2013 that were not allowed to participate in general election debates is 2.41% while those that did get on the debate stage received an average of 2.8%.
The most important consideration for the party is, naturally, maintaining ballot access. The OKLP’s candidate for governor will need to get 2.5% of the vote in November for the party to continue to be recognized. Considering that Mary Fallin is term-limited and both parties have potential nominees that will be able to run active and well-funded campaigns, we should expect stiff competition for every vote. If there is no Libertarian primary for governor I would put our chances of getting enough votes to maintain ballot access at 60%. With a primary open to Independents I would raise that to 90%. With a closed primary it seems to me we would have no better than a 30% chance of staying on the ballot for 2020.
The OKLP can act out of fear and close its primary to Independents and then we can do our best to avoid having more than one person file for governor, but there is no way to prevent any registered Libertarian from filing for the office next spring. Or the OKLP can boldly embrace the opportunity to continue to reach out to Independent voters and use the primary process to increase our base of support for the general election and beyond. Do we want to hole up in our shack, suspiciously eyeing the parties that actually do things, or do we want to reach out to the voters and steer them towards liberty?