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Libertarians Tap 2 Former GOP Governors For White House

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson speaks to supporters and delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention in Orlando, Fla., on Friday. The Libertarian Party nominated Johnson as its presidential candidate Sunday.
John Raoux
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson speaks to supporters and delegates at the National Libertarian Party Convention in Orlando, Fla., on Friday. The Libertarian Party nominated Johnson as its presidential candidate Sunday.

Governors didn't fare too well in the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries this year.

But two former Republican governors will be on top of the Libertarian Party ticket in November.

At the party's convention in Florida this weekend, Libertarians selected former governors Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts as their presidential and vice presidential standard-bearers. The move could give the little-known party more visibility in a year when many voters say they're open to new options.

"I'd like to fill up your current weekly meeting that's occurring in the treehouse to an auditorium because thousands of people are going to want to hear this message," Johnson told convention delegates.

Johnson first ran on the Libertarian ticket four years ago and won only about 1 percent of the popular vote. This year, he tapped Weld, another socially moderate ex-governor, to help him spread the Libertarian message.

"Our platform of the Libertarian party is economic and fiscal responsibility and social and personal freedom," Weld said after his nomination.

The selection of Johnson and Weld was contentious. It took a second ballot for both men to win a majority of delegates. And some die-hard party members remain skeptical that the two former Republicans are Libertarian enough.

Most delegates believe Johnson and Weld's statehouse experience will be an asset, though, for a party that has long been overlooked.

"I think the credibility of two past governors goes a long way with the media. It goes a long way with the general public," said delegate Michelle Pogue of Colorado. "It's a good way to get our message out to people. I'm afraid if we put somebody too radical up there, the people will be turned off. And they'll turn away."

While Johnson and Weld provide a veneer of mainstream respectability, Libertarians have not tinkered with their party's underlying platform, which calls for legalizing marijuana, curbing government surveillance, and dramatically limiting the U.S. military presence overseas.

During a debate Saturday night there was serious discussion of whether the government should get out of the business of administering tests for drivers' licenses, and whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act wrongly infringes on private businesses.

Pogue argues when the government oversteps its boundaries, someone has to pull it back. And she thinks many Americans are looking for more choices at the ballot box.

"When I was in school, I learned there was a Democratic Party and a Republican Party," Pogue said. "Other countries had other parties. Not ours. I think I know a lot more now."

Party Chairman Nicholas Sarwark thinks Libertarians have a rare opportunity to make their case to voters this year. A growing number of Americans say they're willing to consider a third-party candidate, and the likely Republican and Democratic nominees—Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—both suffer from high disapproval ratings.

"It's kind of like two football teams and you want both of them to lose. Maybe a meteor will hit the stadium," Sarwark told reporters. "This is the opportunity for the American people to vote for the meteor."

Libertarians saw a meteoric rise in media coverage of their convention over the weekend. And while there were some uncomfortable moments—such as when a fleshy candidate for party office performed an ill-considered striptease—party leaders were generally pleased, and intent on maintaining their newfound visibility.

Libertarians are already fighting for a spot in the televised presidential debates this fall.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.

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