LINCOLN, Neb. — Voter disgust with the presidential election could give a boost to Nebraska’s Libertarian Party.
Although it’s still dwarfed by the Republican and Democratic parties, the Libertarian Party has seen a 28 percent increase in voter registrations since the state’s May primary. The number of registered Libertarians is on pace to top 10,000 before the Nov. 8 election, and a state senator who recently joined the party is using her experience as a former GOP political activist to teach its members how to campaign.
“It has a different feel from the third-party campaigns of the past,” said Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who switched her affiliation from Republican to Libertarian in May.
Libertarian activists have set up phone banks and are building a volunteer network to knock on doors. The party recently purchased campaign software to track and communicate with registered voters. They’re also using a “text blasting” app to communicate with young voters, a tactic borrowed from former Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
Party activists are focusing more on local government races and setting up new county chapters to recruit candidates. Libertarian Ben Backus, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2014, is expected to win a seat on Gering’s City Council after his primary opponent withdrew from the race. The party is also fielding candidates for the Scotts Bluff and Washington county commissions.
Activists said their strategy is twofold: In local government, they can influence policies that affect people directly, such as property and sales tax rates. It also helps them gain experience and name recognition that could help them run for higher state offices.
In 2014, Keith Ottersberg won a seat on Wymore’s City Council by campaigning as a Libertarian in the officially nonpartisan race. Ottersberg is believed to be the first registered Libertarian to hold public office in Nebraska; party officials and a Nebraska secretary of state spokeswoman said they did not know of any others who had previously won an election.
Ottersberg said he prevailed because the southeast Nebraska town only has about 1,500 people, which allowed him to explain his philosophy to most of them in-person.
“When someone hears ‘Libertarian,’ they think ‘nut job,'” Ottersberg said. “But people are more willing to vote for you when they’ve actually talked to you and know you’re a sane human being.”
Backus said he believes Libertarian campaigns will resonate particularly well in rural western Nebraska, where people “just want to be left alone.” Libertarians generally advocate for limited government that doesn’t infringe on personal freedoms.
“In my area, nobody runs as a Democrat anymore,” Backus said. “I think the Libertarian Party can become an alternative to the GOP in Nebraska.”
Backus said Libertarian Party officials have offered debate training and provided mailing lists to candidates who seek their help. Ebke has played a major role, drawing from her experience as a former GOP activist, Crete School Board member and state lawmaker. She now serves as Nebraska’s state chairwoman for the Libertarian presidential ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, both former GOP governors.
Ebke said party activists hope to appeal to Democratic-leaning voters with their positions on civil liberties and Republicans with their emphasis on fiscal restraint. In the presidential race, the party is aiming to secure at least 5 percent of the statewide vote for Johnson in hopes that the Libertarians will automatically qualify for the ballot in the next presidential election.
Ebke said the party is experiencing “growing pains” because its operations still aren’t as sophisticated as the Republican and Democratic parties, but its leaders think they can entice more voters than usual this year.
Libertarians have traditionally struggled to qualify for the ballot in Nebraska but regained access in 2010 and slowly working to build their ranks, said Michael Knebel, a district coordinator for the party. Knebel said Ebke’s party switch and the resulting media attention helped boost the number of registered Libertarians, as did opposition to Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“The last 12 months have been a game-changer,” he said.
Despite their efforts, Libertarians still face a steep uphill climb in GOP-dominated Nebraska.
“The two major parties have made it extremely difficult for a third party to make any headway,” said Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor and former Democratic strategist. “The Libertarian Party has spent a number of years working to become accepted and field electable candidates. That said, they still have a long ways to go.”