Robert Nowotny started out as a frustrated voter.
“Occasionally I would be voting for more Republicans than Democrats. Other times it would be the other way around,” Nowotny said. “It just seems like everywhere I look — federal, state and local — things are getting screwed up by government.”
Fed up with the status quo, Nowotny declared his candidacy. Come November, he hopes to be the first member of the Texas House of Representatives elected as a Libertarian.
“I decided, rather than just bitch and moan and complain, I decided to jump in,” Nowotny said.
It’s becoming a more familiar story: Voters, frustrated by the anti-incumbent malaise sweeping the political landscape, turn on incumbents and put their weight behind underdogs. Although good management and fundraising certainly play a role in party growth, today’s zeitgeist could help make a Libertarian boom out of the two-party bust.
For the 2010 election, 171 candidates for U.S. Congress are running with an “L” beside their names, up from 127 in 2008 and 114 in 2006. At all levels of public office, the party counts 716 candidates running as Libertarians this year, compared to 593 in 2008, and 596 in 2006.
Wes Benedict, executive director of the Libertarian National Committee, said that some of these declared candidates might not meet the requirements to be placed on the ballot. The party will add new candidates up until the election, though, and he thinks the final candidate number could remain above 700.
By no stretch of the imagination does that make the party a powerhouse. It is dwarfed by the Democrats’ and Republicans’ political machines, has never won a seat in the U.S. Congress, and doesn’t have the donor base to offer its candidates much financial support. (“I’m having to generate, pretty much, my own campaign, my own financing,” Nowotny said.)
Nor is this the strongest that the party has ever been. According to the national committee’s website, 1,642 candidates ran as Libertarians in 2002.
Then the party went through a mid-decade slump, and by 2006, membership was at its lowest point since 1994.
“When things kind of stalled out, it got discouraging and people started infighting,” Benedict said.
Numbers have since stabilized, and, in many cases, returned to growth. An expanded slate means the party can be an alternative to the increasing number of voters who find themselves caught between a Republican rock and a Democrat hard place.
Alex Snitker, Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida, knows the feeling well. He, too, began his campaign as an angry voter, and decided to throw his hat in the ring after questioning all three of his congressmen about the Fair Tax proposal and receiving evasive answers in return.
“Basically as soon as I hung up the phone I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do this myself,'” Snitker said.
He says he feels like the difference between the Democrats and Republicans is merely the “speed at which they’re taking us to the same location.” He says his constituents have echoed the sentiment.
“I think people are waking up to the fact that there’s not really a big difference between the two parties right now,” Snitker said.
The pitch for Libertarian candidates, then, is a mix of positions found in both major parties’ platforms, but which mainly call for small government and individual freedom. Snitker calls himself a “constitutional conservative,” while Nowotny says he agrees with 85 to 90 percent of the Libertarian platform.
Nowotny, for example, is for gay marriage, against increased bureaucracy in health care and says that corporations, “do not look out for anyone’s interests other than their own.” He also favors an idea loudly championed by Tea Party protesters: requiring elected officials to certify that they’ve read bills before voting on them.
As a result, he says his campaign pulls interest from voters on both sides of the aisle.
“I’m the poster boy for the disenfranchised,” Nowotny said.
Whether that interest will translate into votes, though, is another question.
In a district so overwhelmingly red that Democrats aren’t even running a candidate, Nowotny’s biggest obstacle may be convincing GOP voters to buck the party line. But the Republican incumbent, who captured the seat in 2008 after winning a disputed primary by only 17 votes, has polarized the electorate, Nowotny said.
And Texans, perhaps, are more independent-minded than most.
“There’s always been this spirit of the Alamo and, sort of, before John McCain ruined the term, the spirit of being a maverick,” Nowotny said. “I think I have a very good chance to be elected, which would make history.”
Snitker, too, says he has a shot at the prize. He hasn’t been included in official polls, but he said that a survey conducted by his campaign showed him pulling 2.5 percent of the vote. With the Florida Senate race already split between Republican Rubio, Democrat Meek and Independent Crist, he says an outsider could poach enough votes from each opponent to piece together a victory.
“We’re in this to win — make no mistake about it,” Snitker said. “You can’t make any changes unless you win elections.”
Elections can change minds, though, regardless of their results. Even if, in the end, both candidates are unsuccessful, there may be something to be said for fighting the good fight — standing on the political stage and giving voice to the party’s philosophy: that fewer regulations, fiscal responsibility and adherence to the constitution are the keys to a more free and successful nation.
“If the Libertarian wasn’t there, maybe nobody would be saying that,” Benedict said.