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Fighting for Political Crumbs, But Feeling Confident About 2012

Viability is a standard question in politics. Why is she running? What about that guy? Don’t they know they’re going to lose? The Libertarians and the Greens don't think that's the right question.

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Texas is not a two-party state in the Constitution, or in the law, but it looks that way when the argument is over elections and political districts.

The Libertarians and the Greens in Texas hold no partisan political office in the state. And they were sideswiped by the redistricting litigation that delayed primaries, and by confusion over filing deadlines.

“It did affect us. It was nutty. We lost some candidates because of it,” said Patrick Dixon, who heads the Libertarian Party of Texas.

They had feared that the delayed primaries would be more disruptive, keeping people off the ballot or fouling up their convention plans. But both Libertarian and Green candidates have demonstrated enough support in past elections to get on without submitting petitions. And although neither party holds a lofty political seat, Dixon and others like him are optimistic. Confident, even.

“We do a little better every time,” said Dixon, who has served as a nonpartisan city councilman and is running this year for Travis County commissioner, a partisan post. “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t see some progress.”

Viability is a standard question in politics. Why is she running? What about that guy? Don’t they know they’re going to lose?

They do, and they don’t. Dixon is watching the 14th Congressional District this year, wondering about the voters who are replacing with Ron Paul’s retirement. “It could be interesting if people there want to keep a libertarian in Congress,” he said.

Paul is nominally a Republican now — he was elected on that ticket and is chasing the party’s presidential nomination. But he ran as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate in 1988 and is still a rock star for some of its voters.

Dixon also counts it a coup when his party’s candidates win important slivers of the vote. Texas election results are sprinkled with races in which Libertarian or Green candidates have grabbed enough votes to throw the outcome.

Democratic consultants are not above recruiting Libertarians to run in swing districts, hoping those candidates will shave away enough conservative votes to keep a Republican from winning. And Republicans play, too, hoping Green candidates will whittle away liberal voters who would otherwise support Democrats in close races.

However they get into the races, their effect is undeniable.

Libertarians often get 3 percent of the vote or less in races where each of the two major parties has a candidate. Sometimes, even that slim result is influential.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, won re-election in 2010 by a dozen votes, getting 48.5 percent of the vote. Ben Easton, a Libertarian, got 2.9 percent, presumably from conservatives who didn’t vote for Dan Neil, a Republican. It doesn’t always go the Democrats’ way: Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, beat an incumbent Democrat in a race where, because of a Libertarian candidate, nobody got 50 percent.

When only a Republican is running, the Libertarians do even better. Bob Townsend got 18 percent in his race against U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, in 2010. David Sparks got 18.4 percent against U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Carrollton, in that same election. Greens don’t do as well, but they have done well enough to keep their right to get on the ballot without petitions. Edward Lindsay got 6.3 percent against Comptroller Susan Combs, a Republican, in 2010; Mary Ruwart, a Libertarian, claimed 10.5 percent in that race.

The outsider parties don’t hold primaries, choosing their candidates in state conventions — both on the second weekend in June this year. It’s old-fashioned politics. You won’t see any commercials for these people, probably, in the way the Republicans and Democrats seize your television before a primary. But it’s competitive. The Libertarians meeting in Fort Worth will be choosing from among six candidates for U.S. Senate. The Greens have two in that race.

Sometimes, the minor parties outdo the major parties. Both of the little parties have candidates for each of two Railroad Commission seats on the statewide ballot. That’s the agency that regulates oil and gas in Texas, no small thing. Texas Democrats fielded only one candidate in one race and nobody in the other.

The small fries haven’t won one yet. But you can’t win if you don’t play.

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