Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.
Libertarians and other third-party candidates have never won state elections in Texas and rarely make a meaningful difference in election results, with one big exception: As spoilers.
If recent indications of a close U.S. Senate race between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, prove valid, a third candidate’s voters could spell the difference on Election Day.
“It will be the Libertarian voters who win this race,” says a hopeful Neal Dikeman, the Texas Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate.
He doesn’t think — or at least, he didn’t say it in an interview — that he’s going to be the next senator from Texas. But he does think the race will be close enough that he will collect enough votes to cover the difference between first and second place.
That’s going to make the loser wonder whether those Libertarian voters might have been worth courting.
“That’s my whole goal,” Dikeman says of a close finish between Republicans and Democrats. “If that happens, they’ll have to change their game next time.”
Most polls have Cruz ahead of O’Rourke — but only by single digits. The most recent survey, from Quinnipiac University, had Cruz ahead by 9 percentage points among likely voters. Dikeman wasn’t included in that one, and none of the respondents said they would vote for someone other than the two major-party candidates.
For what it’s worth, covering a nine-point spread would be a big reach for a Libertarian candidate. Most of the time, in races with both Democrats and Republicans, third parties do well to get half that amount. Their mileage varies: Mark Miller and Martina Salinas, a Libertarian and a Green, combined for 8.6 percent in the 2016 race for Texas Railroad Commission; that same year, the presidential candidates from those parties, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, combined for 3.9 percent.
But several late summer polls in the Texas race for U.S. Senate are closer than Quinnipiac’s latest, raising at least the possibility that support for Dikeman could amount to more than the final difference between Ted and Beto.
“I get asked every day by voters — from both sides — to pull out of the race,” Dikeman says. “Each campaign thinks that all our votes come out of their side.”
With few swing districts in the state’s congressional and legislative maps, the tactical risks presented by third-party candidates are low. In a district where one party has a double-digit advantage, a Libertarian or a Green isn’t likely to close the distance between the major-party contenders.
There are exceptions. Two years ago, in the state’s 23rd Congressional District, Republican Will Hurd beat Democrat Pete Gallego by 3,051 votes. Ruben Corvalan, a Libertarian, got 10,862 votes. In a race without a Libertarian, where would those voters have landed?
As election deciders, third-party candidates are less important in most Texas races this cycle than they were in previous years, when more districts were competitive in general election races. In other words, before the state’s current redistricting maps took effect. The winners of two 2016 Dallas County races for seats in the Texas House were lucky they didn’t have third-party candidates depressing their numbers: Republican Rodney Anderson won two years ago by just 64 votes out of 47,376 cast; Democrat Victoria Neave’s margin was 836 out of 55,008 cast.
Dikeman expects he will remain unknown to most Texas voters when Election Day arrives. The big guys didn’t include him in their plans for three debates and his tour of the state isn’t getting the crowds that come out to see the frontrunners.
But he’s confident that he’d get more votes if they pulled him in, and that being a spoiler increases the next Libertarian candidate’s chances of being heard. That might mean inclusion in a debate; it more likely means a major candidate will adopt political positions that attract Libertarian voters, he says.
“Each party is talking to its own echo chamber,” he says. “Cruz is talking Trump and right-wing policies trying to drive up a high base turnout. O’Rourke is running too far left for Texas, but for the same reasons.
“When you stack-rank our policies, I would beat them hands down,” Dikeman says. “If I were them, I wouldn’t allow me on stage, either.”