The Libertarian Party could mount its most successful presidential campaign ever—if it can keep it together.
Tim MurphyMay 5, 2016 2:32 PM
Libertarian presidential candidate John McAfee
An hour before the Libertarian Party presidential debate in New York City on Saturday, the cybersecurity guru John McAfee, one of the candidates, was smoking a cigarette outside the venue, a Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village, and explaining how he could win in November. "I would dance circles around Trump," McAfee said. "Trump likes to sling mud. It's impossible to sling mud at me—I sling it at myself first."
That is a gentle way of putting it. Four years ago, McAfee was deported to the United States from Guatemala after escaping from Belize, where authorities declared him a person of interest in the death of his American neighbor. McAfee claims the Belizean government set him up after torturing him and shooting his dog, perhaps with the approval of Hillary Clinton's State Department. In February, the FBI reportedly interviewed his ex-girlfriend about the murder. But he does not think what happened in Belize should disqualify him. "I think it makes me eminently viable—Hillary Clinton is being investigated by the FBI and she's running," he said.
McAfee, who is 70 but has a goatee and frosted tips that give him the profile of an over-the-hill Backstreet Boy, was shadowed by a gaggle of photographers and filmmakers as he loitered on the sidewalk. He told a Spike TV camerawoman that she is "sexy enough to turn a gay man straight." He told the director Billy Corben, who is making a six-part docuseries on McAfee, that his project was a disaster and that he would wind up running a shoe store. At one point, McAfee approached a camera, held his face an inch from the lens, and flicked his tongue.
"John clearly isn't one to keep silent and smile politely. My god, you really don't want to fuck with him. Seriously."
Even by the freewheeling standards of the Libertarian Party, McAfee is an unusual candidate. But he has also joined the party at an unusual moment in time. After three decades on the fringe, the one-time party of Russell Means and David Koch has found a rare opening thanks to Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee. A quarter of anti-Trump Republicans say they would consider voting for a third-party candidate, and with no white knight—no Michael Bloomberg, Paul Ryan, or General James Mattis—preparing for an independent run, there may be nowhere else to turn but the Libertarian Party.
"When the media talks right now about 'third party,' what they're not acknowledging is that we are the third party," said former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, the party's 2012 presidential nominee who is running to be its standard-bearer once again. "The Libertarian nominee will be the only third-party nominee on the ballot in all 50 states."
This could be a historic year for the gun-loving, big-government-bashing, pot-smoking third wheel of American politics—if the Libertarian Party can just keep it together.
McAfee may draw most of the cameras, but his path to the nomination is a difficult one. There are 17 Libertarians running for president, four of whom participated in the debate at the New York Libertarian Party convention, a modest after-lunch affair in front of a hundred or so attendees in the restaurant's wood-paneled back room. The front-runner for the nomination, which will be decided by delegates at the party's convention in Orlando later this month, is Johnson, who won a record 1.3 million votes under the Libertarian Party's banner four years ago. Between presidential campaigns, Johnson was the CEO of a Nevada-based marijuana company that specializes in candy and creams. If he loses in November, his greatest professional legacy will probably be the creation of a not-yet-street-legal kind of lozenge called "Hi," which he has predicted will be a household name 200 years from now.
Johnson is anti-war, socially liberal, and fiscally conservative, but rather than laying out his positions, he'd rather talk about a website he found, isidewith.com, which purports to match your political views with the corresponding candidate. He likes to tell people that he took the quiz and agreed with Gary Johnson 99 percent of the time. More important—for the purposes of a candidate and a party that voters know little about—the quiz shows that a lot of people agree with him at least some of the time, including Bernie Sanders supporters. In a year in which a large portion of voters in both parties don't like their first choice, Johnson wants to be their second.
"Trump and Hillary alienate most voters," Johnson told me before the debate, as diners nearby munched on pierogies and stuffed cabbage. "They're the two most polarizing figures in politics today. If there were ever an opening for a Libertarian candidate, it's now." His literature asks voters simply to "be Libertarian for one election." (The 50-state goal is aspirational—the party is currently on the ballot in 32 states, plus the District of Columbia.)
On Tuesday night, a few minutes after Ted Cruz dropped out of the GOP race, Johnson made this pitch more explicit, releasing a web video addressed specifically to "Never Trump" Republicans, in which he promised to fight for "small government and conservative values." Johnson, whose style of speaking sometimes resembles that of an incredulous stoner, was a bit of an outlier as a Republican. But now the situation has flipped. The essence of his candidacy is that he's normal enough to convince Republicans to do something they'd otherwise consider crazy—vote third party.
You could see how sharing the debate stage with someone who believes that hit men from the Sinaloa cartel are leaving cream cheese wrappers on his property—as McAfee told a reporter from Men's Journal—would throw a wrench into his plan to make the Libertarian Party look mainstream. But Johnson is staying positive. "It's something that I can't concern myself with," he said, referring to his eccentric rival. And Johnson, for all his experience in government, is still an eccentric himself. When Fox Business Network's John Stossel asked McAfee about his troubles in Belize at another debate last month, Johnson walked over from his podium and kissed McAfee on the cheek.
The love does not go both ways. McAfee's campaign is built on the Trumpian promise of a celebrity outsider shaking up the political system by earning tons of free media, saying some audacious things (he offered to decrypt the San Bernardino shooter's phone if the FBI would leave Apple alone), and appealing to a silent majority of fed-up voters. McAfee only recently joined the Libertarian Party, but he has already threatened to leave it if Johnson wins. "If Johnson does get the nomination then it is clear that I misjudged the party," he wrote last month. "Nothing and no one will change my mind on this." He has refused to elaborate on why he thinks this. But in a Facebook post, Judd Weiss, McAfee's running mate—yes, McAfee has already picked one—laid out McAfee's rationale.
According to Weiss, a photographer and longtime Libertarian activist, McAfee believes Johnson attempted to pay McAfee's staffers to switch sides. Weiss also alleged that pro-Johnson forces had secretly bought out all the hotel rooms at the Orlando hotel where the party's nominating convention will take place. (The Johnson campaign has denied all of this.) Weiss, who is not threatening to quit the party, accused Johnson of developing bad habits while working in the "cesspool of scheming viciousness" of Republican politics.
"John clearly isn't one to keep silent and smile politely," Weiss wrote. "My god, you really don't want to fuck with him. Seriously."
By the standards of the candidates' recent feudING, the New York debate was comparatively mellow, borrowing its tone from the event's opening act, an acoustic performance from folk-singer Tatiana Moroz, the first musician with her own digital crypto-currency, Tatianacoin.
McAfee does not appear to relish the theater of running for president. When moderator Todd Seavey invited him to make an opening statement, he told attendees that he "slept through" his debate prep but would "hopefully" have something better to say during closing statements. He stared up at the chandelier when his opponents talked and he dragged his hands slowly over his face, as if he hadn't slept in a while. Earlier, when Vermin Supreme, a perennial presidential candidate and performance artist famous for wearing a black rubber boot on his head, approached McAfee and gushed that together they will "turn up the brightness of the future!" McAfee replied, "anything to get me through the boring shit I've been going through for four months."
McAfee and Johnson shared the stage with two other candidates, Darryl Perry and Austin Petersen. Perry is a Free State project activist from New Hampshire whose campaign conducts business exclusively in Bitcoin and precious metals. (His cash on hand is two half-gram silver cards, four silver quarters, seven silver dimes, 1.75 ounces of silver, and 0.45427586 Bitcoins). He recently picked up the endorsement of the Libertarian Party Sex Caucus. His platform states that the US government "as it exists today, should be abolished," which would render moot any questions about his lack of experience. (His biography mentions his work at a college radio station.) At the debate, he called the federal government "the world's largest terrorist organization," and he identified himself, in contrast to Johnson, as a member of the "libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party."
Petersen is a suit-and-tie libertarian who previously worked for FreedomWorks and Fox News host Andrew Napolitano. He raised money for Ron Paul's presidential campaign and name-drops Republican elected officials he considers allies, such as Michigan Rep. Justin Amash and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie. Boyish and a little overeager, Petersen refers to himself as the "freedom ninja" and contends that the party needs a fresh face who can "bring along those Never Trump conservatives who are just dying to vote for a pro-life libertarian." He was also the only candidate who suggested that McAfee's past might hurt the party in November, but in the same breath he called McAfee a "badass" and said McAfee had offered to drop acid with him. (McAfee said this was a joke and that he hasn't used drugs in 35 years.)
Trump hovered over everything. Asked about immigration, Johnson cited his work as a border state governor and called Trump's proposal for a massive border wall ludicrous. McAfee noted that he was an immigrant, of sorts, having been born overseas to an American serviceman. (As a follow-up, the moderator asked him if that made him ineligible to be president, to which McAfee said, "Under the laws of this country, I could be qualified or disqualified for almost anything.") Johnson hammered Trump on economic protectionism, on civil liberties, and on abortion.
Petersen called Trump a gift to the Libertarians—"we are now seeing massive immigration into our open borders of our party"—but he contended that there was something worth emulating about the celebrity billionaire, in style if not substance. "He's got the showmanship and the qualities and performance that we're gonna need to take this message to the masses," he said. "Not this same sort of egghead intellectualism that we have."
This is, in part, the appeal of McAfee; he's a candidate for people who don't like the old way of doing things. Derrick Michael Reid, a long-shot candidate who participated in a JV debate that preceded the main event, put it to McAfee as they huddled outside the restaurant. "If Johnson gets nominated, the country just goes through a big yawn—'oh, the goofy governor,' and that's it," he said. "They nominate you or me, they go viral." At the very least, it'll get them on Spike TV.
But there is a lesson in Trump for a party that has struggled for decades to get anyone's attention. (All the candidates agreed that their path to success is predicated on doing something Johnson didn't do in 2012—qualify for a presidential debate.) Trump, who long ago flirted with a run for the Reform Party nomination, is not so different from what the Libertarians aspire to be. He is someone whose policies don't fit neatly inside the two-party framework and who has managed, with minimal assistance from establishment organs, to force his way into the conversation and disrupt the whole damn thing. This is the dream of all political outsiders—that one day something cataclysmic will happen to convince voters that what they really believe in is not what the status quo offers. Unfortunately for the Libertarians, there has already been a transformative outsider candidate in 2016. And he's taken over the GOP.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich will drop out of the Republican presidential race on Wednesday afternoon, according to Politico and the Associated Press, effectively handing the nomination to businessman Donald Trump. Kasich's decision came on the heels of Trump's blowout victory in the Indiana primary. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who's the party's second-leading vote-getter, dropped out after the race was called Tuesday night. Kasich canceled a media event this morning in Washington, DC, and has scheduled a news conference for 5 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio.
Don Blankenship is looming large over the contentious governor's race.
Tim MurphyApr. 29, 2016 6:00 AM
As CEO of Massey Energy, central Appalachia's largest coal producer, Don Blankenship towered over West Virginia politics for more than a decade by spending millions to bolster Republican candidates and causes. That chapter came to an end in April, when Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to commit mine safety violations in the period leading up to the deadly 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine. But even in absentia, he casts a long shadow over state politics. For evidence, look no further than the contentious Democratic primary for governor.
The campaign pits Jim Justice, a billionaire coal operator and high school basketball coach, against two opponents—state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, and Booth Goodwin, the former US attorney who prosecuted Blankenship. Justice holds a double-digit lead in the polls and (not unlike another billionaire running for office this year) is spending much of his time arguing that his 10-figure net worth will insulate him from special interests. But when he was asked about the Blankenship conviction at a campaign stop earlier this month, he ripped into Goodwin for what he considered to be a sloppy, opportunistic prosecution.
"I think we spent an ungodly amount of money within our state to probably keep Booth Goodwin in the limelight and end up with a misdemeanor charge," Justice told WOAY TV. "If that's all we are going to end up with, why did we spend that much money to do that?"
Blankenship originally faced up to 30 years for making false statements to federal regulators, but he was convicted on only the least serious of three counts—the misdemeanor conspiracy charge. In Goodwin's view (and in the minds of plenty of Blankenship's critics), his light sentence is the product of weak mine safety laws, not lax prosecution. As he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, "It is not our fault that violating laws designed to protect workers is punished less harshly than violations of laws designed to protect Wall Street." (Nor was the Blankenship case a one-time gimmick—prior to that trial, Goodwin also secured the convictions of a handful of Blankenship's subordinates at Massey.)
Goodwin fired back at Justice in a fundraising email to supporters. He referred to Blankenship as Justice's "good friend," alleging that Justice "took him as his personal guest to the 2012 Kentucky Derby two years after the horrific Upper Big Branch mine explosion," and that he attended a gala that night with Blankenship, hosted by then-Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, "while the families of the UBB miners who were killed were still suffering their loss." (A Beshear spokesman told the Louisville Courier-Journal at the time that Blankenship attended Derby Day events as Justice's guest, which Justice's campaign denies.) For good measure, he noted that Justice, like Blankenship, had racked up a huge tab of mine safety violation fines, some $2 million of which had gone unpaid and were considered "delinquent" prior to the start of the campaign. (Justice began paying off the fines after an NPR investigation made the total bill public.)
On Monday, Goodwin's campaign went after Justice again, releasing an ad based on the front-runner's remarks about the Blankenship prosecution. In the spot, Judy Jones Petersen, the sister of a miner who died at UBB, speaks straight to the camera and suggests that the two coal operators have more in common than Justice would like to admit.
"I don't really understand why Mr. Justice would step out against the integrity of this incredible prosecution team," Petersen says. "He of all people as a coal mining operator should understand the plight of coal miners, but I think that unfortunately the plight that he understands best is the plight of Don Blankenship."
She goes on to call Goodwin a "hero" for prosecuting Blankenship.
Justice, for his part, is running his own ad—touting an endorsement from the United Mine Workers praising him for his record on safety and job creation. The union's president, Cecil Roberts, previously called the UBB disaster "industrial homicide," and fought Blankenship over mine safety and workers' rights for three decades. His message is a not-too-subtle contrast with Blankenship and Massey: "Jim is one of the good coal operators."
Don't expect Blankenship's shadow to shrink as the race heats up. The Democratic primary is set for May 10—two days before the notorious coal boss reports to federal prison.
Ted Cruz may be mathematically eliminated from clinching the Republican presidential nomination before the convention, but that didn't stop the Texas senator from announcing a running mate on Wednesday: Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race after the New Hampshire primary and previously lost a US Senate race in California, is a notable pick not just because she is a woman, or because she previously criticized Cruz for saying "whatever he needs to say to get elected," but because of her past experience—she would be the first vice president in 76 years to have ascended to the post without previously holding elected office.
The last time a major party picked a vice presidential nominee without legislative or gubernatorial experience was in 1972, when Democrat George McGovern chose Sargent Shriver, who had previously run the Peace Corps and worked on President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty." But you have to put an asterisk next to that, since Shriver was chosen only after McGovern's original running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, resigned amid reports about his previous mental health treatments. Four years earlier, Alabama Gov. George Wallace selected as his running mate Air Force General Curtis LeMay, but Wallace, a longtime Democrat, had chosen to run (and lose) under the American Independent Party.
To find a running mate with no experience in elected office who actually won, you have to go back to 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt named Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace as his second vice president, following eight years of John Nance Garner. Prior to that, Calvin Coolidge tapped Charles Dawes, President Warren Harding's budget director, to be on his victorious ticket in 1924. Dawes had lost a Senate race 23 years earlier and written a hit song in the interim, before being dragged into the executive branch. Dawes himself seemed to recognize his lack of qualifications."I don't know anything about politics," he said after being selected as Coolidge's running mate. "I thought I knew something about politics once. I was taken up on the top of a 20-story building and showed the promised land—and then I was kicked off."
But okay, both of those vice presidents had some experience in the executive branch. The last true outsider to win was in the 19th century. Prior to becoming James A. Garfield's running mate in 1880, Chester A. Arthur had no political experience other than stints as port collector of New York City and chairman of the state Republican Party. In a nice bit of symmetry with Cruz's campaign, Arthur's future presidential campaign was marred by allegations that he was ineligible because he was born in Canada.
State Sen. Jamie Raskin won Tuesday's Democratic primary in Maryland's eighth congressional district. But the bigger story is who lost—that would be David Trone, a wine retailer who spent $12.7 million of his own money in the hopes of winning the seat.
Trone, running in a district that includes the affluent Washington, DC, suburbs in Montgomery County, set a record for most money spent by a self-funding congressional candidate to win a House seat. (The previous record was $7.8 million, and that included both a primary and a general election; as of early April, Raskin's campaign had spent a little more than $1 million.)
The irony is that Trone was running as a campaign finance crusader. Much like Donald Trump, who cites his $35 million investment in his campaign as proof he can't be bought, Trone believed his enormous personal wealth would insulate him from charges of corruption. "I certainly could have raised enough money to fund a competitive campaign," he said in a full-page Washington Post ad two weeks ago, when he had only spent a pedestrian $9.1 million. "But the PACs, lobbyists and big dollar donors who give money would expect special attention. No matter how well-intentioned, those contributions and the candidates who take them are part of the reason Washington is broken."
That message carried him to the brink of success—or maybe it was just the deluge ads—but in the end, money alone didn't cut it. Trone won by large margins in the two counties that comprise a smaller portion of the district, but Raskin held a sizable edge in his home county, Montgomery. Trone's final receipt: a little more than $400 per vote.