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Libertarians poised to see influence in Michigan grow

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Michigan’s fledgling Libertarian Party has high hopes of gaining influence in future state elections because of the campaign of a former Republican governor from New Mexico who will visit Detroit on Wednesday.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson will address the Detroit Economic Club at a noon luncheon after making a dent in the polls of a presidential race marked by voter angst over Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Johnson’s arrival comes as his campaign is ramping up its efforts in Michigan. Radio ads have been airing in the Grand Rapids for the past week, and the party plans to run a “Michigan-specific” campaign in mid-October in Metro Detroit, said Bill Gelineau, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.

“We’re starting to look like a real party,” Gelineau said.

The radio ad buy on Metro Detroit stations will range between $20,000 and $30,000 and will target the Libertarian Party’s free-market economic philosophies toward working women in business, he said.

“We think that free market (philosophy) together with social tolerance is not only attractive to business women but more attractive to people across the country than the two-party war would hold for,” Gelineau said.

Libertarians are riding a wave of new enthusiasm for their political movement and Johnson. Paid membership for the Libertarian Party of Michigan — a $25 annual fee — is up 45 percent this year, Gelineau said but wouldn’t disclose actual numbers.

There are approximately 1,500 Johnson yard signs across the state, which Gelineau acknowledged is “nothing” for a typical statewide campaign. But it’s a sea change compared with previous elections, he said.

“We didn’t have any signs for Harry Brown,” Gelineau said of the Libertarian Party’s 1996 and 2000 presidential candidate.

Michigan Libertarians are almost giddy about the prospect of Johnson pulling tens of thousands of votes from Clinton and Trump in the Nov. 8 general election.

If Johnson can top 154,040 votes in Michigan, Libertarians would be included on the August 2018 primary ballot and be positioned politically to disrupt the two-party dominance, Gelineau said.

More than 154,000 voters would be about 3.3 percent of the vote, if turnout is the same as 2012. A lower turnout would drive Johnson’s percentage higher.

“I think if he hits double digits, it’s a game changer for us,” Gelineau said.

If Johnson wins 5 percent of the national popular vote, the Libertarian Party would be able to participate in the 2020 presidential primary, said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s office.

But Libertarian Party leaders in Michigan acknowledge they face organizational barriers and lack money to coordinate a grassroots campaign to boost Johnson.

The party has no campaign office so volunteers are working from their homes and businesses, said Scotty Boman, Michigan director of the Johnson-Weld campaign.

Boman said the Johnson campaign has a list of 3,000 voters who have expressed interest in volunteering.

“This campaign has drawn more volunteers than we have active members in the Libertarian Party, easily,” said Boman, a self-described “serial” Libertarian candidate who is running for the State Board of Education.

Plans are in the works to have volunteers do door-to-door canvassing — a get-out-the-vote effort built into the political machines of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Johnson and his running mate, former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, have been on a media blitz in recent weeks, trying to boost Johnson’s polling numbers above the 15 percent needed to be included in the first presidential debate on Sept. 26.

In a recent interview with The Detroit News and other newspapers, Johnson expressed confidence he could shake up the race if he can share the same debate stage as Clinton and Trump.

The additional media exposure has resulted in more scrutiny of Johnson’s candidacy. Johnson was lambasted in the media last week for his response to a question about war-torn Aleppo, Syria.

“And what is Aleppo?” Johnson asked MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle.

Johnson later said he thought Barnicle was referring to an acronym, but acknowledged he was “incredibly frustrated with myself” for not recognizing the Syrian city.

Gelineau said Johnson’s drawing a blank on Aleppo shows the former governor has weaknesses just like Trump and Clinton have well-documented flaws.

“Now, he better darn well bone up on what’s going on in Syria,” Gelineau said.


Twitter: @ChadLivengood

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