How Libertarian Richard Ward disrupted the race between Democrat Yadira Caraveo and Republican Barbara Kirkmeyer
Richard Ward raised no money. He created no campaign website. He made and planted no yard signs – “not even in my yard,” he said with a smile and a shrug.
Yet, the Libertarian candidate for the 8th Congressional District — one of the most competitive and closely watched U.S. House races in the country — is getting blamed for tipping the Nov. 8 contest from the favored Republican column to Democrat Yadira Caraveo.
Ward’s tally — 9,280 votes — was nearly six times the margin separating Caraveo and GOP opponent Barbara Kirkmeyer, who lost by a mere 1,632 votes out of more than 236,000 ballots cast in the race.
“I think there was a concerted effort by some outside individuals and groups to try and prop up Mr. Ward, to make him a spoiler,” Kirkmeyer told The Denver Post in an email last week. “In a race this close, it appears to have worked.”
Given the Libertarian Party’s emphasis on smaller government, which aligns with the Republican Party’s historical philosophical thrust, it’s often thought that a third-party candidate running under that label does more harm to the GOP candidate. Colorado Republican Party executive director Joe Jackson has no doubts about Ward’s impact on the race.
“I think he clearly played spoiler in this race,” Jackson said. “I won’t speculate on the message it sends, but I think Ward certainly took more votes that would’ve naturally been cast for Kirkmeyer than would’ve been cast for Caraveo.”
But Ward, a 45-year-old heavily tattooed, long-haired electrician with a passion for heavy metal and punk music (count the Descendents and Slayer among his go-to bands), said he doesn’t consider himself a spoiler. Kirkmeyer, he said, “probably cost herself the election.”
“I mainly wanted to educate people about what Libertarianism is and that there is an alternative to the two parties,” said Ward, who goes by his middle name Dan. “I wanted to give them an outlet where they could voice for change.”
Short of canvassing all of the nearly 9,300 voters who cast their lot with Ward last month, it will never be known just how his presence on the ballot affected the final outcome of the race.
How many of his supporters would have voted for Caraveo or for Kirkmeyer had Ward not been on the ballot? How many would simply have sat out the election altogether? Were the votes Ward got genuinely about bolstering the chances of a Libertarian candidate or were they simply protest votes against the two major parties?
University of Denver assistant professor of political science, Phil Chen, said more data would be needed to draw any firm conclusions about how Ward ultimately influenced the outcome.
“We don’t know the split,” Chen said of Ward’s supporters.
“It’s quite unusual”
Third-party candidates are generally a non-factor in Colorado’s congressional races because the districts, as they are drawn, comfortably favor one party or the other. A candidate drawing single digits is irrelevant to an outcome that is firmly in one major party’s camp or the other.
The most recent notable disruptions by third-party candidates in American politics occurred during the 1992 presidential contest, when independent Ross Perot garnered 19% of the popular vote, and eight years later when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader got nearly 3% of the popular vote in a drum-tight contest that went to the U.S. Supreme Court for resolution.
“It’s quite unusual,” Chen said of what happened last month in the 8th Congressional District. “We don’t talk about third-party candidates in U.S. House races because there are not that many competitive races.”
But Colorado’s newest U.S. House seat, which covers portions of Adams, Weld and Larimer counties north of Denver, was crafted to be the state’s most politically competitive. Registered Democrats hold just a 12,000-voter advantage over Republicans, with nearly 190,000 voters aligned with neither party.
Just 8,600 registered voters in the 8th identify as belonging to a “minor party,” which includes the Libertarian, American Constitution, Green and Unity parties, according to the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commission.
Complicating the analysis of the 8th District vote is the fact that Ward is no full-throated Libertarian. In fact, he wanted to run as a Green Party candidate when he first heard about the creation of a new congressional district encompassing the neighborhood he grew up in on the southern edge of Adams County.
“They never got back to me,” said Ward, dressed in a hard hat and reflective vest as he revamped the electrical system inside a McDonald’s restaurant in Adams County on a recent morning. “I just wanted to flick my thumb at the two-party system.”
So the soft-spoken — almost shy — father of two turned to the Libertarian Party, which he said was in line with his basic philosophy on life: “Do what you want to do — just don’t hurt people or take their stuff.”
He went to the party’s convention in March, got nominated by others in attendance and was placed on the ballot. Jordan Marinovich, spokesman for the Libertarian Party of Colorado, said Ward was a “line-holder candidate” designed to give the party better visibility in the 2022 election.
“A line-holder candidate is someone who is willing to put their name on the ballot even if they don’t want to campaign that much — that’s positive for us,” Marinovich said.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to provide voters with a choice beyond the two major parties, which he characterizes as “two wings of the same bird.” Forty-five percent of Colorado’s 3.7 million active registered voters are unaffiliated voters, according to the Secretary of State’s Office — the largest group of voters in the state by far.
“I think this idea of thinking beyond the duopoly — I think a lot of people are aware of how Washington works,” Marinovich said. “This person didn’t run a real campaign and did that well — what does that say about the two other candidates?”
Elana Schrager, Caraveo’s campaign spokesperson, said a “clear majority” of voters chose the Democratic state representative from Adams County “to be their voice in Congress because they trust her expertise as a legislator and a doctor.”
“Rep.-Elect Caraveo is focused on fighting to cut costs, make prescription drugs more affordable, and protect the freedoms of families from Commerce City to Greeley and everywhere in between,” she said.
“What could they have done?”
Ward’s campaign director, Patty McMahon, said while her candidate eschewed digital or direct mail campaigning, he did engage in a “100% ground game,” talking up his candidacy to people at music venues and at his various job sites.
“I have no doubt the metal community pushed this to the finish line,” she said.
The aim, McMahon said, was not to injure the two major party candidates but to provide another choice for voters who may not see the answer they are seeking in the Democratic or Republican platforms.
“We don’t want to wreck the parties,” she said. “We were always going after the independent voters.”
Chen, the political science professor at DU, said major-party candidates will have to adjust their approach to third-party candidates — to blunt their influence — going forward in a congressional district so evenly split. That strategy, he said, will depend on who else is running and what political platform they represent.
Incumbency will help Caraveo in 2024, Chen said, but perhaps not to the degree it typically has in the past.
“The incumbency advantage is real but it is diminishing,” he said.
Major-party candidates have to be judicious about how much attention they pay to a third-party contender, for fear of looking petty or desperate.
“Ward was such a low-profile candidate that it looks bad for a major-party candidate to attack a minor-party candidate,” Chen said. “In some senses, what could they have done?”
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