By Web Master, 3-30-12
After a second Libertarian candidate filed for U.S. Senate, Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch had a choice. She could hold a primary for which the cost to counties would total between $350,000 and $390,000. Or she could simply place both men on the general election ballot. She chose the latter.
What this means is one of the most closely watched races in the country – that of incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and his challenger Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg – may have two Libertarians on the ballot. How this might affect the outcome of what is expected to be an extremely close race is anyone’s guess. But if either Jerry McConnell or Dan Cox or both gain traction between now and November, their success would likely come at the expense of some votes for Rehberg.
McCulloch’s ruling followed a 2005 statute that overhauled state election law, as reported by Lee Newspapers’ Charles Johnson:
“An election administrator does not need to prepare a primary ballot for a political party if: (a) the party does not have a candidate for more than half of the offices to appear on the ballot; or (b) no more than one candidate files for the nomination by that party for any of the other offices to appear on the ballot.”
Either challenged, or not, third-party candidates get to skip the primary to the general election ballot in Montana. Meanwhile, at the national level in the Republican presidential primary, some candidates have struggled with ballot access. For example, neither Rick Santorum nor Newt Gingrich could meet Virginia’s tough candidate-filing requirements. Mitt Romney subsequently cruised to an easy victory there.
As Johnson pointed out, this was the first time that Montana had been faced with the prospect of a third-party primary since 1996, when two people filed as Reform Party candidates. And some would like to see another one this year.
“That is just not right,” exclaimed Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, on Twitter in response to news of McCulloch’s decision. “The election is about fairness and integrity, not cost.”
Scott Aspenlieder, a Republican running for McCulloch’s seat, called her decision “outrageous.”
“McCulloch’s decision to ignore the Libertarian Party primary is yet another example of a career politician using the Secretary of State’s office for her party’s political gain hoping it will help her liberal friends,” he said in a prepared statement.
But McCulloch may have faced equal criticism if she had agreed to spend almost $400,000 of taxpayer money on a third-party primary. Moreover, in interviews, the Libertarian candidates appear willing to discuss one of them dropping out of the race as not to dilute either of their votes.
If both McConnell and Cox do remain on the ballot, Montana State University David Parker said they would likely split the Libertarian vote and have no more impact than if just one of them ran. But that’s not to suggest one or both of them won’t influence the outcome of the race.
Parker pointed to the 1996 race for incumbent Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’ seat in which Reform Party candidate Becky Shaw pulled 4.73 percent of the vote. Natural Law candidate Stephen Heaton garnered 1.02 percent the vote. Rehberg lost to Baucus that year by 4.87 percentage points.
Perhaps a better example is the 2006 U.S. Senate race. That year Tester beat incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns by about 3,500 votes. Libertarian candidate Stan Jones received 10,377 votes.
There is, of course, no guarantee that enough of those votes cast for Jones would have made up the difference for Burns, but it’s also safe to argue that at least some of them would.
If the race between Tester and Rehberg is close, those votes cast for a Libertarian will matter, whether there is one or two of them.
[End of article]