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Analysis: Minor Parties Matter, Even if They Lose

If a Libertarian or a Green Party candidate won a race for the Texas Legislature or statewide office, it would be a first. But those candidates can determine who does get into office.

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Libertarians matter, even when they don't win, because they can sneak enough votes away from Republicans to make Democrats in legislative races viable. 

That’s why state Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, glances at his rearview mirror every once in a while. Dale is in a district considered safe for Republicans. He won two years ago, getting 53.1 percent against Democrat Matt Stillwell, who got 40.7 percent. It’s the other number in that election that catches the eye: Matt Whittington, a Libertarian, got 6.2 percent.

That’s enough to swing a close race, and political professionals believe — sometimes against the evidence — that Libertarian candidates take votes that would otherwise go to Republicans. They provide a voting sanctuary for conservatives who don’t want to go with the state’s majority party in a particular race.

Third-party candidates are at their best when one of the major parties doesn’t field a candidate. Ben Easton, a Libertarian, got 20.1 percent of the general election vote in 2012 against U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan. Libertarian James Stanczak got 5.2 percent and Green Party candidate Maria Selva got 4.8 percent against U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, in that same election. Neither incumbent drew an opponent from the other major party that year.

It’s not always clear which voters are parking their votes with which candidates. Republican Barry Smitherman, running for railroad commissioner in 2012, didn’t have a Democrat in his race. He got 4.5 million votes, just a few more than Christi Craddick, a fellow Republican who was running for another seat on the same commission and who was one notch ahead of Smitherman on the ballot. She got 4.3 million votes. More than 1.5 million people voted in her race and didn’t vote in his — most of them, apparently, from the party that didn’t put a candidate in his race.

Dale Henry, a Democrat, got about 3.1 million votes against Craddick, and a Libertarian and a Green in that race combined for 326,665 votes. In Smitherman’s race, Libertarian Jaime Perez received 1.1 million votes, and Green Josh Wendel received 486,485.

That was a case where a Libertarian candidate drew from the pool of unleashed Democrats.

Most of the time, Libertarians get less than 3 percent of the vote in legislative races where there is both a Democrat and a Republican. Some, like Whittington in that HD-136 contest, do better. Dale isn’t sweating, exactly — he says he is confident about the November election. But he is paying attention to both the Democrat in the race, John Bucy III, and to Libertarian Justin Billiot.

State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, got 50.1 percent in the 2012 general election, a nose ahead of Democrat Rosemary Robbins, who got 48.3 percent. That one had a Green candidate — Saul Arechar — and that same folk wisdom that Libertarians steal votes from Republicans holds that Green votes come from Democrats. Harper-Brown lost her Republican primary this year to former state Rep. Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie. His general election opponents in that swing district will include the winner of a May Democratic runoff and also W. Carl Spiller, a Libertarian.

Gene Lord is the Libertarian in SD-10, the most closely watched race for a seat in the Texas Senate. He and Democrat Libby Willis will face the winner of this month’s GOP runoff between Konni Burton and Mark Shelton in the race to replace Wendy Davis, who is giving up the seat to run for governor.

It’s a swing district that has favored Republicans in statewide races while electing Davis and showing enough Democratic tendencies to give that party hope. In 2012, Davis beat Shelton by just over 2 percentage points, with no Libertarian in the race. It is a race to watch in any case, but Lord’s presence on the ballot could narrow the Republican advantage.

Most of the time, it doesn’t matter. The current political maps include only a small number of true swing districts that could — given the prevailing political winds — land either party a place in the Legislature.

Some candidates don’t have to worry about it, even if they are in swing seats. State Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, won a squeaker two years ago and faces a serious challenge again this year. And the seat left open by the retirement of state Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, could go either way, too. All of the candidates in those two races will face serious competition in November, but it won’t come from the Libertarians or the Greens.

This year, the potential spoilers landed somewhere else.

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