Hoping for a gold rush: Virginia Libertarian Party sees opportunity in Congressional races

By: - September 24, 2018 6:05 am

Meet the Libertarians: top row from left: Stevan Porter, Joe Walton. Bottom row from left: Matt Waters and Pete Wells

Next year, Pete Wells is hoping Virginia will have a gold rush.

Not the kind that sends people running to California, but one that will replace blue waves and red waves.

Wells, one of four Libertarian candidates running in Virginia congressional races this year, hopes the party will get enough votes and support that it can be treated like Republicans and Democrats: easier ballot access, inclusion in debates and a better shot at making it into office.

“We believe our views deserve a place in government,” Wells said. “Just being included in the race changes the nature of the discussion.”

Matt Waters, a former political consultant, is running for U.S. Senate; Joe Walton, a former chair of the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors, is running to represent the 7th district to the west and north of Richmond; Wells, a retail professional, is running in the 4th District, which stretches from the suburbs south and west of Richmond to Suffolk; and volunteer firefighter and IT professional Stevan Porter is running to represent Northern Virginia’s 11th District.

Most of the candidates aren’t projecting a win — Walton thinks he has a shot — but they hope this is the year the Libertarian Party solidifies a spot in Virginia politics. They’re placing their bets on Waters.

“It would be the biggest game changer in Virginia politics to happen in 100 years,” said Bo Brown, chair of the Virginia Libertarian Party.

Corey Stewart, Republican candidate for Senate, is divisive even within his own party. If Waters can get 10 percent of the vote, the Libertarian Party would be closer to being recognized as a party.

“It’s Corey Stewart that has to worry about the Libertarians,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “It would be Republicans who come to vote because they want to vote in a district race, and they just don’t want to leave the Senate vote blank.”

Historically though, it’s been a tough slog for Libertarian candidates in statewide races.

Clifford Hyra, the party’s candidate for governor last year, took just 1.1 percent of the vote. Libertarian Robert Sarvis got 6.5 percent of the vote in the 2013 gubernatorial race that saw Terry McAuliffe eek out a win over from Ken Cuccinelli.

Even so, one analyst told The Daily Beast that Sarvis’ performance was the best by a third-party in the South in more than 40 years.

When Sarvis ran the next year in the Senate race contested by Mark Warner and Ed Gillespie, however, he took just 2.4 percent of the vote.  

‘Party of the People’

The Libertarian Party of Virginia formed in 1971 and calls itself the “Party of the People.”

Gary Johnson, a formerly Republican governor from New Mexico, may be Libertarianism’s most recognizable face as a result of his 2012 and 2016 presidential runs. Johnson is now running for a U.S. senate seat in New Mexico.

Unlike Democrats and Republicans, the Libertarian Party doesn’t have official platforms for most social issues. It focuses instead on a small government and deregulation, including ending the war on drugs. And it sees enhancement of private property rights and the repealing of laws that limit corporate liability as the best way to protect the environment.

“We’re trying to do what’s best for individuals,” Brown said. “That’s our focus. It’s not on politics, it’s not on some power construct.”

In 2008, the Libertarian Party of Virginia planned to run a candidate in every congressional district, but three failed to make the ballot. Candidates must collect 1,000 signatures to be on ballots, an easy feat for candidates in major parties. That year was a banner year for the party, and they haven’t run that many candidates in state races since, Brown said.

Virginia’s Libertarians running for office this year agree on some issues: The national debt needs to be reduced, all four said, the immigration system needs to give people a legal route into the country and criminal justice systems need an array of adjustments, including sentencing reform.

They all also believe Congress has to be a better check on executive powers in the federal government.

Wells, a Navy veteran, is running against Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin and Republican Ryan Adams. He thinks the executive branch often oversteps when dealing with defense issues.

“We have very few checks against use of military force,” Wells said. “That means we have thousands of Virginians serving overseas right now in places that we’re not even talking about anymore.”

Walton, a former Powhatan County Board of Supervisors chairman, thinks checking the executive branch is more important than ever.

“The fact that the House is looking for ways to protect the president is stunning,” he said. “I don’t know how and why a member of Congress would cede such authority to them.”

Libertarian candidates don’t necessarily share views on social issues. All of Virginia’s Libertarian candidates this year support Second Amendment rights, but they’re split on abortion: Porter, who once attended seminary to become a priest, is pro-life, and so is Waters.

But the party’s focus isn’t on social issues — Porter said libertarians are often “fiscally conservative and socially inclusive.”  They prefer to talk about economic policies to reduce the national debt and keep money in the hands of the voters.

Money means freedom, said Waters, a self-identified former Republican. He has some of the most extreme economic ideas of the four Libertarian candidates running this year.

Waters said he wants to eliminate the federal income tax and get rid of the Internal Revenue Service. On his website, Waters also suggests getting rid of the Drug Enforcement Administration and reducing the size of the military.

“It’s a stretch, I know, but I want to stretch,” he said. If elected, he wants to get on the Senate Finance Committee and then the IRS subcommittee to get started on some of his ideas.

“I believe in maximizing your liberty,” Waters said. “You can do whatever you want to do as long as you don’t hurt me or someone else. You have radical freedom but you also have radical responsibility.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.