Kentucky voters who haven’t cottoned to either major-party candidate in this year’s U.S. Senate race will have another option on the ballot this November: Libertarian David Patterson.
On Monday, the day before the Aug. 12 deadline, Patterson submitted more than 9,000 signatures to the office of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — who happens to be his Democratic opponent in the race. Grimes and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican incumbent, are locked in a near dead heat in what has become one of the most competitive, and ornery, Senate contests in this mid-term election year. McConnell has a slight lead, usually one or two points, in most polls.
Patterson, a Harrodsburg police officer, needs 5,000 verified signatures to make it onto the ballot. Anywhere from hundreds to thousands of submitted signatures are often disqualified in ballot petitions, usually because the signatory is not registered or doesn’t live in the state or district holding the election. But Ken Moellman, chairman of the Kentucky Libertarian Party, expressed confidence the campaign has at least 5,500.
“He’ll have the required number, no question about it,” Moellman said last week.
As of Tuesday night, Grimes’ office was still verifying signatures, but a spokeswoman said it appears Patterson has more than enough.
Patterson, 43, is polling about 7 percent in the race, and analysts say he has almost no chance of besting McConnell or Grimes. But his entry into such a close contest could have an impact on the outcome.
“The third-party candidates usually will pull votes from whichever [of the major-party] candidates they’re most philosophically aligned with,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.
That’s potentially bad news for McConnell, as Libertarians gain most of their support from conservatives who would otherwise vote Republican.
But recent polls suggest that may not be the case in this campaign. The thin margin between McConnell and Grimes remains fairly constant with or without Patterson in the mix, indicating that he’s siphoning an equal number of votes from both major-party candidates.
And the fact that support for McConnell and Grimes doesn’t erode substantially when the polls list Patterson as an option suggests that the majority of his backers are actually undecided voters or those who say they wouldn’t vote for either McConnell or Grimes under any circumstances.
That scenario makes sense, Farnsworth said.
“Third-party candidates bring in new voters by providing that ‘none of the above’ option,” he said. “The main thing that [Patterson] offers here is that he’s not a Republican and he’s not a Democrat.”
Despite the long odds, Patterson says he’s not interested in “siphoning votes” from one candidate or the other, but to offer voters a choice and, in the end, win them over.
“We’re trying to get out, not so much our message, but exposure, so people can see what we’re about,” he said at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Western Kentucky earlier this month. The Libertarian Party had set up a booth at the annual event, the biggest in Kentucky politics, to get signatures for Patterson’s ballot petition and to get word of his candidacy out to voters.
“Once they take a look at the Libertarian Party,” he said, “they realize that we’re more socially accepting than Democrats and more fiscally conservative than Republicans.”
Patterson says getting control of the nation’s debt is among his biggest concerns.
“I am fed up with the debt — frankly, that’s what brought me into this whole thing,” he said. “The folks we’re paying to run the country are spending our money recklessly and something needs to be done about it.”
The rest of his platform is standard Libertarian fare — he supports vast reductions in the size and scope of the federal government, ending the “drug war,” keeping the U.S. out of conflicts overseas, and leaving the issue of who can marry whom to individuals, not state or federal officials.
While he acknowledges it’s an uphill battle, Moellman says the idea of a Patterson victory in November is not as farfetched as it might sound. He points to an April poll of 1,000 likely voters by Rasmussen Reports that shows 53 percent believe neither Republicans nor Democrats represent the American public.
“We’re providing a choice,” he said. “And we’re growing.”
Farnsworth said Libertarians have indeed struck a chord with voters.
“That speaks to the anger felt across the country as a whole this year,” he said, referring to voter discontent over the level of partisan sniping and legislative gridlock in Washington.
But, he says, Libertarians, like all third parties, can only go so far under the current system.
“The ballot access rules are pretty clearly set up by Democrats and Republicans to give Democrats and Republicans the advantage.”
Case in point: While Patterson needs 5,000 verified signatures to get on the ballot in Kentucky this year, McConnell and Grimes needed exactly three each — including their own — because of their major-party status.
That 5,000-signature threshold is designed in part to keep crank and frivolous candidates from filling up the ballot and making a joke of the democratic process. But third-party advocates say the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot is arbitrary and simply too high. So too, they say, are the alternative methods to get on the ballot. Third-party candidates can forgo the petition if their party’s candidate received at least 20 percent of the vote in the last presidential election, or 2 percent of the statewide vote in the same election. No Libertarian presidential candidate has ever received more than 1.05 percent of the vote nationwide.
In 2012, the party’s nominee, Gary Johnson, received nearly 1.3 million votes, or about 1 percent of the total votes cast. Johnson received about 17,000 in Kentucky, or a little less than 1 percent.
Farnsworth says ballot access isn’t the only obstacle that puts third parties at a disadvantage. More vexing, he said, is the lack of resources — specifically, cash — to get their candidates, and their message, known to voters. With just 4,000 registered members statewide, it will be difficult for Libertarian Party to match even a fraction of the millions of dollars being raised by McConnell, Grimes and special interest groups.
Says Farnsworth: “Unless you’re a very wealthy candidate, like a Ross Perot, you just won’t be able to gain that exposure. … There’s always going to be a ceiling for third-party candidates.”
(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)