Third Parties Run for President, but Little Else, in Iowa
Iowa's largest third parties, the Greens and Libertarians, won a big victory last year when they earned a place on the state's voter registration forms. But few voters have exercised that option, and few of their candidates will appear on ballots below the presidential level.
The Libertarian Party, which has run nearly full slates for state offices in recent years, does not have candidates in the top-tier races this year, other than the presidential race. The Green Party, likewise, does not expect to have down-ballot candidates.
But both parties have more prominent than usual presidential candidates, who could have an impact in a close election.
Kevin Litten of Cedar Rapids, the Libertarian Party's 2006 nominee for governor, says Libertarians are excited about their high-profile presidential candidate, former Georgia congressman Bob Barr. But as for lower-ballot races, Litten said, "As I understand things, we have three people running for state House and possibly two other people running for other local offices" in the November election. Litten also ran for Congress in 2002 and 2004, but is not a candidate for any office this time.
Iowa Libertarian Chair Ed Wright said the legislative candidates are Campbell DeSousa in House District 45 and Eric Cooper in District 46, both based in Ames, and Russ Gibson in District 60 in southwest Polk County. "Our 2008 campaign focus has thus far been on our Presidential and vice presidential candidates Barr and (Wayne) Root," said Wright.
The Greens are also expected to run a former member of the Georgia congressional delegation, Cynthia McKinney. She won't be officially nominated until the party's July 10-13 convention, but, like Barack Obama and John McCain, she's won enough delegates to clinch the nomination.
"At this point, it's not looking like we will be running any candidates this time," other than McKinney, said Green Party activist Holly Hart, the 2002 nominee for lieutenant governor. "There were a couple mentions of running someone for Congress, but then (incumbent Democrat) Dave Loebsack started voting against the military budgets."
Barr and McKinney's candidacies could have a ripple effect through the presidential race. Running as the Green nominee in 2000, Ralph Nader was widely seen as a spoiler who cost Democrat Al Gore the presidency, a wound so deep that Rep. Leonard Boswell repeatedly and successfully hammered primary challenger Ed Fallon with it this spring.
But despite national attention to Nader's 2008 campaign, he is running on an independent line this year. Green Party activists are more likely to vote for party nominee McKinney.
Barr, who served as a Republican in Congress from 1995 to 2002, is likely to have a bigger impact than Nader or McKinney. The vociferous supporters of the Ron Paul Revolution are unreconciled to John McCain's candidacy. Paul, himself the Libertarian nominee in 1988, has said he will not endorse McCain because of McCain's support of the Iraq War. Paul has not formally endorsed Barr, but encouraged him to get into the race.
But some Libertarians have issues with Barr's record in Congress, particularly his support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage exclusively in heterosexual terms, and the Patriot Act. Barr has since renounced those votes. His highest profile in Congress was in 1998, when he served as one of the House managers of the Bill Clinton impeachment.
McKinney campaigned in Iowa in December, and Barr has an Iowa connection as well: Though he only lived here briefly, he was born in Iowa City. But their impact is likely to be greater in other states. Unlike past Democrats, Barack Obama is making strong efforts in the Rocky Mountain west, where Libertarians have run well in the past. A couple of points shaved off McCain's vote total by Barr could swing some electoral votes.
Obama has also put Georgia on the map, even though it has trended Republican in the post-Jimmy Carter era. Both Barr and McKinney represented the state. Barr ran statewide in 1992, narrowly losing a U.S. Senate primary. His district lines changed dramatically in 2002, when he lost in a two-incumbent primary.
McKinney's district lines changed several times during her two non-consecutive trips to Congress, as she represented parts of most of the state's major media markets. However, most of her media attention has been negative, centering on a physical altercation with a Capitol police officer who failed to recognize her as a member of Congress. She lost a 2002 primary, returned to Congress in 2004 when her successor ran for the Senate, and was defeated in the primary again in 2006. After the last defeat, she moved from Georgia to California.
As an African-American woman, McKinney offers a double whammy of the identity politics that were so prominent in the Democratic nomination fight. She is a plausible protest vote for women still angry about Hillary Clinton's defeat, but who can't bring themselves to vote for either McCain or Obama. Her main support, though, is likely to come from anti-war absolutists who want impeachment and immediate zero funding of the war and who feel Obama is too timid on these issues.
In Iowa the courts and Legislature have removed one incentive for a third-party presidential vote. Until this year, running a candidate for president or governor, and then winning more than 2 percent of the vote was the only way for a group to earn political party status and a place on the voter registration form. The Greens had that status from 2000 to 2002, and the Reform Party had party status from 1996 to 1998.
The Greens and Libertarians, with the support of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, sued then-Secretary of State Chet Culver and challenged the law. In a settlement, Culver's successor, Mike Mauro, established a new "party organization" status and petition procedure. The state Legislature has since taken that agreement and turned it into law. This achieved the main goal of the Greens and Libertarians: an identity on voter cards and access to lists of their supporters. The small parties still don't have some of the trappings of the full parties, such as primary elections.
They may be just as happy without primaries. Only 439 voters participated in the Green Party's one Iowa primary in 2002, compared to 97,000 Democrats and 206,000 Republicans. Small numbers can leave a third party vulnerable to a hostile takeover, as seen in 1999 when Pat Buchanan usurped the remnants of Ross Perot's Reform Party. That led the party's only elected official, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, to quit the party and start his own Minnesota Independence Party.
Green and Libertarian registration began in Iowa on Jan. 2, but the change was buried in the news one day before the caucuses. As of Tuesday, only 150 Libertarians and 64 Greens were registered statewide, out of more than 1.9 million Iowa voters. At the end of the party's two-year run of full party status, in January 2003, statewide Green registration peaked at 2,480.