Libertarian-Republican ‘coopetition’ in New York State

BY TODD ALDINGER, ESQ

The Libertarian Party has emerged from the 2018 midterm elections as a meaningful player in New York State politics. There will necessarily be some electoral competition between Republicans and Libertarians; however, because we live in deep-blue New York, Republicans and Libertarians also have many reasons to cooperate, if only to defeat establishment Democrats. Thus, there is a path whereby coopetition—a mixture of cooperation and competition—can be mutually beneficial to both the Republican and Libertarian Parties without needlessly handing over electoral victories to Democrats.

In New York’s 2018 midterm election, Libertarian Party governor candidate Larry Sharpe received nearly double the 50,000 votes he needed to give the Libertarian Party official party ballot status for the next four years. The Libertarian Party will now be able to run candidates for local and state offices without the burdensome requirement of creating a new independent ballot line from scratch for each candidate. Because this significant hurdle to ballot access has been eliminated, we should expect to see many more Libertarian candidates run for election in the near future.

Ballot access for Libertarian candidates is a double-edged sword for Republicans. On the one hand, Libertarians can be expected to at least occasionally, and hopefully frequently, cross-endorse Republican candidates. At other times, the Libertarian party will run its own independent candidates who will compete with Republican (and Democrat) candidates for votes. In many districts an independent Libertarian candidate will bring new voters to the polls and/or take votes relatively equally from Republicans and Democrats. In other districts, however, an independent Libertarian candidate may swing elections by taking more votes from one party or the other.

Being that we live in deep-blue New York, there is a particular danger that independent Libertarian candidates will make certain districts unwinnable for Republicans. This is because in blue districts, Republicans must win an overwhelming amount of independent/moderate voters. Meanwhile, Libertarian candidates have a certain appeal to such voters given the Libertarian Party’s fiscally conservative but socially tolerant message.

If the Republican Party wants to win outside of ruby-red strongholds it must begin taking the Libertarian Party into account and develop a strategic relationship with the Libertarian Party that seeks to maximize cooperation when possible while acknowledging the necessary electoral competition that this new party presents. I use the portmanteau of coopetition to describe this situation, with elements of both cooperation and competition, which will be necessary if these two parties are to avoid mutually destructive actions.

To begin we must first answer the question: Why should Republicans and Libertarians want to work together at all? The answer is because both Republican objectives and Libertarian objectives are significantly similar in New York State. Just moving away from the statism that Albany force-feeds New Yorkers would simultaneously bring us closer to both libertarianism and the conservative-populist ideology which currently dominates Republican thinking.

To use an analogy, pretend Libertarians and Republicans are planning a road trip away from Albany. Libertarians might want to end up in Vegas, while Republicans are looking to go to rural Texas; however, these routes all require traveling through Ohio. Republicans and Libertarians can thus carpool at least to Ohio without deviating from the quickest routes to their respective end destinations. After driving through Ohio, Libertarians might decide to continue to journey west on their own while Republicans can opt to head in a more southerly direction, but, first, they both need to get through Ohio. While Ohio isn’t that far from Albany geographically, politically it’s worlds away. Thus the Republican-Libertarian political carpool could last for many years until we arrive at a place where New York State regulations, taxes, and Second Amendment restrictions have been reduced to something approximating Ohio levels.

This is just an analogy, and it should not be read to mean that the Libertarians and Republicans will or should always march in lockstep.   That is both wrong and unrealistic. There will be many times where there will be direct competition between Republicans and Libertarians. However, this competition ought to be limited as much as possible and to places where it can be had without throwing elections to establishment Democrats. For example, it would be no great harm if Libertarians ran a vigorous campaign for an elective office in a town so ruby-red that regardless of whether the Republican or Libertarian wins, the Democrat would come in third.

While dealing with increased electoral competition such as this will often be inconvenient, the Republican Party must be cognizant that the Libertarian Party has its own prerogatives that go beyond defeating Democrats. The Libertarian Party will and should seek to elect its own officials, to grow its own membership, to build familiarity with voters, and to generally develop as a party. Anyone who paid attention to Larry Sharpe’s campaign should realize that Libertarians are unlikely to stand down just because Republicans complain that Libertarians are competing with them for votes.

Given that Republicans and Libertarians have similar interests but are also likely to directly compete, what would realistic coopetition look like? The answer depends upon the nature of the particular electoral battleground. I’ll examine a number of scenarios.

Coopetition in Upstate Cities Abandoned By Republicans

The easiest scenario for coopetition to occur is in the cities of Upstate New York, which have all but been abandoned by the Republican Party. In fact, Republicans often don’t even bother fielding candidates for City Council or Mayor, letting Democratic primary voters decide these elections. Libertarians should thus see these cities as ripe electoral pastures for their message, especially those cities where there has been an influx of libertarian-leaning millennials. They can enter the arena as the only competition to Democrat monopolies, and, thus, they don’t have to concern themselves diluting the non-Democrat vote.

While this scenario does not create any direct competition between Republicans and Libertarians, because Republicans don’t typically field serious candidates for these offices anyways, there may be indirect negative consequences for Republicans. In a general election between a Democrat and a Libertarian candidate, there will be greater voter turnout than would be the case in a one-candidate race that has already been decided in the Democratic primary.

This will necessarily increase Democratic turnout in overlapping, county-level races. Republicans must accept this fact, as they have no right or authority to demand Libertarians not run candidates just to depress turnout. Instead, Republicans must adapt to this reality and field libertarian-friendly candidates in county-level elections that overlap cities where Libertarians are running candidates. This way, Republicans can seek to try to take advantage of the increased libertarian-leaning turnout instead of merely relying on depressing Democratic turnout.

Coopetition in Purple Counties

Purple counties—that is counties where Republicans are competitive but are not dominant—are fertile grounds for Libertarian-Republican coopetition. In such counties, Libertarians and Republicans may run separate candidates in certain elections. Because there would be competing Republican and Libertarian candidates in these races—with each candidate articulating a pure ideological message to their respective voter blocks—this scenario would likely result in increased turnout amongst both ideologically committed Libertarian and Republican voters.

However, when the parties compete like this there is a danger that Libertarian and Republican candidates will split the non-Democrat vote and deliver the election to the Democrat candidate. Conversely, Libertarians and Republicans may cooperate in certain races by jointly endorsing the same candidates. Such jointly-endorsed candidates are likely to be less ideologically pure from either Party’s perspective and may thus generate less Libertarian and Republican excitement and turnout. However, because the jointly-endorsed candidate would pool votes on both the Republican and Libertarian ballot lines, such candidates would be well positioned to defeat their Democrat challengers.

In any given election year, counties typically have a few “top of the ticket” elections that generate the most media attention and voter turnout countywide. Examples of such “top of the ticket” elections include races for the offices of county executive, county comptroller, county sheriff, etc. While these “top of the ticket” races generate the most countywide buzz and voter turnout, there are also “down ticket” elections that generate more localized turnout and may become particularly buzz-worthy within a given municipality. Examples of “down ticket” elections include races for individual county legislative seats and races for town offices in the various towns within the county.

The turnout impacts from “top of the ticket” and “down ticket” elections within a given county are highly interconnected. Regardless of whether voters show up to the polls primarily motivated to vote for (or against) a “top of the ticket” or “down ticket” candidate, they typically will vote for a candidate in every race. Thus voters showing up with the intention to vote for a certain county executive candidate will also vote for town councilmen and vice versa. This interconnectedness between “top of the ticket” and “down ticket” races creates opportunities for Libertarian and Republican coopetition to occur in a number of ways.

The first type of county-level coopetition involves cooperation at the “top of the ticket” level and competition at the “down ticket” level. In this scenario, Republicans and Libertarians would agree to back the same candidate(s) at the “top of the ticket” but would each run their own candidates for certain “down ticket” seats. The hope would be that the Libertarian and Republican turnout spurred by “down ticket” competition would pool together for the candidate(s) jointly nominated at the “top of the ticket”—helping those candidates to amass enough votes to beat the Democrat candidates.

The second type of county-level coopetition is the exact opposite. Here there would be competition at the “top of the ticket” level and cooperation at the “down ticket” level. Here competition at the “top of the ticket” level would be expected to drive Libertarian and Republican countywide turnout that would filter down to the various jointly-endorsed county legislative and town candidates.

The third type of county-level coopetition that can take place involves cooperation and competition for different candidates at the “top of the ticket.” For example, in Erie County there is both a county comptroller and county sheriff race at the “top of the ticket” in certain election years. Perhaps one year the county comptroller candidate is a libertarian-leaning Republican while the sheriff candidate in a hardliner who wants to focus enforcement on non-violent drug offenders.

In this scenario, the Libertarians might seek to cross-endorse the comptroller and run their own candidate for sheriff. A competitive race for sheriff on strong ideological differences would drive up both Libertarian and Republican turnout. Regardless of which sheriff candidate won, the comptroller candidate would likely prevail given that he would be consolidating most of the votes cast for either the Republican or Libertarian sheriff candidates.

Coopetition at the Legislative Level

Coopetition could also be a useful factor to both parties at the legislative level (in counties, purple municipalities and in the state legislature). Here coopetition boils down to a divide and conquer approach. Generally, Republicans and Libertarians should seek to run mutually acceptable candidates in all legislative seats that Republicans-Libertarians should be able to win. Simultaneously, Republicans should sit out running candidates of their own in blue seats, allowing Libertarian candidates to run head-to-head against Democrats without Republican candidates siphoning off right-of-center votes.

In this way, both Republicans and Libertarians benefit. Republicans benefit because for every seat that a Libertarian wins over a Democrat there is an additional legislative vote against growing government and raising taxes. Libertarians benefit because this kind of coopetition will help Libertarians achieve their most realistic ideal outcome—a legislature equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, with Libertarians controlling the balance of power. In such a scenario Libertarians can vote with Republicans against taxes and increases in the size of government and vote with Democrats against interfering in the social sphere.

Conclusion

Thanks to Larry Sharpe’s spirited campaign, the Libertarian Party has arrived in New York State as a serious electoral force.  The Republican Party must accept and adapt to this fact and must seek to work with the Libertarian Party as much as possible in the coming years.  If they don’t and they instead try to ignore Libertarians, the Libertarian Party can be expected to aggressively campaign all across the state, more often to the Republican Party’s detriment than to it benefit.  Strategic coopetition is a better path for both Parties, one which will simultaneously allow both to advance their interests at the expense of Democrats.

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