WASHINGTON – The non-interventionist, free-marketing Libertarian Party is spoiling for a fight.
The group is planning to challenge several incumbents in November in a so-called national "spoiler" strategy that could put vulnerable Republicans on more shaky ground and help stir the suspense over whether the GOP can hold a House majority and wrest back the Senate from Democratic control.
"We recognize there is a window of opportunity that did not exist up to this point," said Ron Crickenberger, political director for the Libertarian Party, which has about 30,000 members and contributors in the United States.
Crickenberger doesn't like to use the term "spoiler," but said the Libertarians see an opportunity to siphon off votes in critical districts as part of a national strategy to turn over the House and change domestic policy. Three of the five districts targeted are Republican-run, and the incumbents are all on the hit list because of their heavy-handed support for the war on drugs and against the legalization of marijuana, a key issue for the Libertarians, whose bedrock beliefs are less government and personal freedoms.
"In this country, what we've looked at is how out of touch the drug policy is with the public polling," Crickenberger said, noting that so far eight states have passed medical marijuana laws despite a federal ban. A Pew Research Center/Gallup poll conducted in March showed 73 percent of voters support the medical use of marijuana with a doctor's prescription.
Among the candidates targeted for defeat are Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., Rep. Max Bachus, D-Mont., Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, and Rep. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark.
At the top of the list is Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who is locked in a tight primary race with state Rep. John Linder. Whoever wins the primary is a surefire winner in this heavily Republican conservative 7th District.
"If we can take out, or help to take out a few of the drug war leaders in the course of the general election, we feel we will have a big impact on the issue in Congress," he said.
In a recent statement, Barr said he didn't have the time to worry about the Libertarians, with whom he doesn't agree on many issues.
"The centerpieces of the Libertarian agenda include legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution, and pornography, as well as halting all restrictions on immigration," he said.
"These issues do not represent 7th District values, and I ask that all our candidates clearly and publicly distance themselves from these issues, and demand an end to involvement in our primary by the Libertarian Party."
Cleland, although taking "every candidate seriously," according to press secretary Jamal Simmons, is undeterred by his Libertarian opponent. He is in a tough re-election fight with whoever wins the much-anticipated Republican primary between Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss and state Rep. Robert Irvin.
"Max Cleland is ready to campaign against any candidate from any party in the fall," said Simmons. "He's ready to take his 20-year record in national and state office and take it to the voters and win."
Libertarian candidates, who serve in 301 elected offices throughout the country, have acted as spoilers before. In 2000, Libertarian candidate Jeff Jared collected 64,000 votes in the Washington state Senate race that led to a recount and a 3,000-vote upset win by Democrat Maria Cantwell over Republican incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton.
And since the 2000 presidential election that saw Green Party candidate Ralph Nader strake off enough votes for former Vice President Al Gore to lose Florida, and thus the election, the impact of third parties is apparent.
"It isn't a focused strategy of ours to target incumbents for defeat," said Green Party political director Dean Myerson. "But when you run strong, people lose."
Analysts say they doubt that the Libertarians will be able to pull off the spoiler strategy based on the drug issue alone.
"If I were a candidate I wouldn't exactly shudder, but if I were the Libertarians I would give it a go," said Thomas Mann, co-editor of The Permanent Campaign and Its Future, who added that while the third party might not topple the incumbent, it might rattle some cages.
"You should be running to educate the people," said Stephen Hess, a political analyst with the Brookings Institution, who called the spoiler strategy "despicable and beneath the Libertarians.
"If everybody tried this trick it would be a country of multi-parties in the worst sense," he said.
But Crickenberger said the founding fathers envisioned a "rotating process" that allowed for fresh ideas and new faces in Congress, and Myerson agreed, saying without a full multi-party process, smaller groups will continue to play the spoilers.
"It doesn't have to be this way, but as long as it does we're going to run candidates," Myerson said.