Unprecedented millions have flowed into Arkansas as Republicans and Democrats duke it out to see who the state's next governor and United States senator will be. Voters would be forgiven, based on the ubiquitous advertisements and media coverage of the big statewide races, for assuming they had two choices: Democrats or Republican. In fact, there will be four names on the ballot for governor and senator, as well as a number of other races, thanks to two minor parties trying to get a foothold in state politics: the Green Party and the Libertarian Party.
"We're trying to give people an alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans," said Green Party gubernatorial candidate Josh Drake. The Greens are a progressive party that is generally more liberal than the Democrats — particularly in Arkansas, Green candidates tend to suggest that the Democratic politicians in the state have abandoned progressive principles. The Libertarians, meanwhile, are hardcore proponents of limited government and individual liberties, which often puts them to the left of many Arkansas Democratic politicians on social issues (they're strongly in favor of gay rights, for example), to the right of many Arkansas Republican politicians on fiscal issues (they're firmly opposed to the private option), and in disagreement with both Dems and the GOP on other issues (like the Greens, Libertarians oppose the Drug War and believe the nation spends too much on its military).
Including governor and senator, the Libertarians have 28 total candidates running for various offices in the state; the Greens just have two. Ballot access for third parties isn't easy, demanding 10,000 signatures, an expensive and labor-intensive process. The stakes for the Greens and Libertarians are big in this year's gubernatorial race: If a candidate for governor clears 3 percent of the popular vote, the party automatically gets a slot on the ballot for all offices the following year. Then, the party could simply nominate a candidate for each office without going through the laborious signature-gathering process.
There's a catch, though: The party has to keep meeting that 3 percent threshold in the next major election, and the vagaries of Arkansas ballot law state that the threshold must be met for the candidate at the top of the ballot. In 2016, that means the presidential candidate has to nab 3 percent, a virtual impossibility. Even if Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Frank Gilbert, for example, got 3 percent this year, the Libertarians would get an automatic ballot slot in 2016, only to almost surely lose it in 2018. "You can just see the D's and R's in the backrooms clinking glasses," Gilbert said. "As long as they're writing the laws, they're going to find all sorts of ways to stay in power."
In addition to being outspent by millions by the major parties, the Greens and Libertarians are not invited to most of the debates (debates hosted by AETN were an exception, inviting candidates from all four parties, as did the Arkansas Press Association for the governor's debate).
When debates are limited to two candidates, "the citizens are short-changed of alternative points of view," argued Mark Swaney, Green candidate for U.S. Senate. "When minor party candidates are speaking and answering the same questions as the major party candidates, they bring up issues and points of view that the other two candidates never talked about, that the media never covered. So that point of view at least gets heard over the air." Swaney added that even with a Green and Libertarian on stage, the major-party candidates will inevitably ignore them and stick to their talking points. Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate Nathan LaFrance said that during the Senate debate he participated in, he could see the panelists visibly frustrated with the refusal of Republican Rep. Tom Cotton and Democrat Sen. Mark Pryor to answer questions directly. "Both of them, especially Cotton, would just not give an answer. They just repeated the same talking points [from] the thousands of commercials that have run."
The Senate and gubernatorial races, depending on which poll you believe, could both turn out to be very close. Green and Libertarian candidates have typically been polling around 2 percent, though historically minor party candidates have done less well on election day than they've polled, either because their supporters don't show up or because many of them drift to one of the major parties once they get to the ballot box. Still, it's certainly possible that four men who haven't been getting much attention — the Greens' Swaney and Drake, the Libertarians' LaFrance and Gilbert — could be difference makers in the state's two biggest races. So it's worth taking a moment to ask — paraphrasing Adm. James Stockdale, the vice-presidential nominee for the most successful third-party effort in recent American history — Who are they? Why are they here?
"I decided to run for the U.S. Senate with the Green Party because there are no other progressive candidates or parties participating in the Senate race," said Swaney of Madison County, a commercialization manager working with intellectual property for the University of Arkansas. Swaney, in his second run for office after running for state representative as a Green in 2012, had one of the most memorable lines of the AETN debate, on politicians seeking to further slash food stamps: "These are people who don't care if babies starve. They like their ideology more than human beings."
Swaney is particularly critical of Pryor for supporting the Iraq war, a shoddy record on civil liberties, and voting like a Republican on issues related to climate change.
"As a senator, he's got no guts," Swaney said. "If you look at his record, he never supports anything unless he can find 150 other people to sign on for it. He basically attempts to run the middle of the road. He attempts to do nothing but appeal to the lowest common denominator in Arkansas."
Drake, a Hot Springs lawyer, is running for governor after previously running three times for U.S. Congress as a Green, twice against Mike Ross (one year, he complained, he got 14 percent of the vote, but the major networks in Little Rock reported that Ross had run unopposed).
"People like Ross and Pryor, they water [the Democratic Party] down," Drake said. "They make people think that the only people who can ever get elected are these quasi-Republicans. That that's our only option in Arkansas because people are so right-wing. It's part of the Democrats' job to speak out against the nuts like Jason Rapert. ... If the only people talking are the right- wing nuts and Democrats are sitting there with their mouth shut, people are going to believe the people that are talking."
Both Drake and Swaney said that they were the only candidates in their races in favor of reasonable gun control. "Mike Ross is the biggest gun nut there is, right behind Asa Hutchinson," Drake said. He is similarly frustrated with the state party's wishy-washy position on gay marriage. "Mike Ross is just adamant that marriage is between a man and a woman and it will always be that way," he said. "That's a thoroughly Republican viewpoint and even Republicans are running away from that. We've got a Democrat running for our highest elective office who's still saying that shit — it's just mind-boggling."
Drake said that too many Arkansas Democrats have "no backbone. The only way to really have progressive politics whether you're a Democrat or a Green is you gotta be willing to stand up to the other politicians and explain to people." He added, "So many times you're voting for the lesser of two evils — so many people are so disillusioned because they don't have anyone to vote for."
"The last time I voted for a Democrat for president, it made me feel so bad I had to go home and take three showers in a row," Swaney said. "I said I will never, ever, ever again vote for a candidate I do not want to get elected."
Gilbert, who was once the vice-chairman of the state Republican party back when Asa Hutchinson was chairman, said that some time in the late 1990s, "I finally realized that what the Republican Party was doing had nothing to do with what I wanted to do, and had very little do with individual liberty or personal freedoms." Gilbert, now the constable of DeKalb Township inGrant County, eventually joined the Libertarian Party. "They were socially liberal and fiscally conservative," he said. "At first I thought they were confused, but then I realized they were consistent.
It took Gilbert, raised a Free Will Baptist, a while, but he now supports gay rights and advocates for radical reforms to drug policy. "If I was governor, I would start the process immediately to pardon every nonviolent drug offender in the state," he said.
Gilbert, who joked that the Republicans and Democrats were "Socialist Party A and Socialist Party B," said he takes strong positions against Common Core, minimum wage hikes, and the private option, whereas Hutchinson triangulates. "Those things he can finesse, he can play games with, he can answer circuitously to avoid," said Gilbert, who added that "when the Democrat suggests more tax cuts than the Republican, you've got something out of order." Hutchinson, he said, pays occasional lip service to Tea Party Republican voters, but ultimately takes them for granted. "And Mike does the same thing to the left wing of his party that Asa does to the right wing of his," Gilbert said.
LaFrance, an energy strategist for Walmart running for office for the first time, said that he had become disillusioned with both parties. "They both have their own sets of big donors and their own sets of things they want to waste our tax dollars on, but they don't differ on the fact that they want to waste our money and grow government," he said. "And they want to reduce our freedom and reduce our ability to live our lives without government interference."
LaFrance said that two of his biggest policy priorities were term limits for all members of Congress and a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. "I think we as a country would be better off if we could stop the days of the career politician," he said. "The balanced budget amendment is another big one, because our politicians in the federal government have proven that they cannot help themselves from spending more money than they take in.
The Greens and the Libertarians have areas of agreement and disagreement on policy, but they're firmly in the same camp when it comes to the belief that Arkansas and the nation need a change from the two-party system.
"There's no place on the ballot that says 'who do I hate more than anyone else?' " Swaney said. "I believe the country is beginning to become ready for a multiparty system, which is the case in every other democratic society on the face of the earth except this one."
"We've gotten to this point because we've been locked into the two-party system and they've owned politics in this country for more than a century," LaFrance said. "It's like a monopoly. If you have one or two companies that dominate an industry, they become inefficient, they become corrupt, and the whole thing starts to rot from the core."
Critics of minor parties often suggest that voting for them is a wasted vote, or argue that they act as spoilers, drawing votes from one candidate and helping the other. The spoiler issue is a subject of much debate; the Greens and Libertarians argue that more often than not, they are attracting voters who otherwise wouldn't go to the polls at all. Their bigger pitch, though, seems simply to be that the red-and-blue divide doesn't capture all the shades of opinion, and voters should have options to vote for candidates who actually represent their views.
Asked what his goal for the election was, Swaney said, "I expect and hope to get votes. I can promise I'll get at least one vote, and that makes it worth it to me."