2022 a year of rebuilding for Iowa Libertarians

Rick Stewart, Libertarian candidate for governor of Iowa, poses with his campaign trailer. (Photo provided/Caitlin Carnahan)

There seems to be a lot of work against Iowa’s third-largest political party heading into the 2022 election.

The Iowa Libertarian Party suffered a setback last year when its former president was accused of stealing $10,000 of party funds. The national party also replaced its leader last year after the former president resigned following a dispute with an affiliated state, part of an ongoing series of intra-party wrangling. And a state law passed by Republicans in Iowa last year makes it harder for third-party candidates to run for office.

Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Rick Stewart of Cedar Rapids thinks a seemingly down year is a boon for his campaign. He says recent controversies have sparked new interest in the party and, with fewer candidates on the ballot, activists can focus more on racing to the top of the ticket.

“That incident that you talked about,” Stewart told me in a recent interview, “where our president was released from office, it really kicked Iowa libertarians out of the woodwork.”

The current political landscape in Iowa — with an increasingly dominant Republican Party and a struggling Democratic Party — could bode well for Stewart’s chances of securing 2% in a three-way gubernatorial race.

The race of the governor is the one that matters the most to tiers. In order to be recognized as an official political party in Iowa, organizations must win at least 2% in a presidential or gubernatorial race. This entitles them to special partisan privileges.

Iowa Libertarians first gained this status after the 2016 election. In the following midterm elections, they fielded candidates for every statewide race, all four seats in the United States House and many other downvoting contests.

The Libertarian nominee fell below 2% in 2018, making the party a nonparty under Iowa law. Additionally, a 2021 law dramatically increased the number of signatures required to get a third-party or non-party candidate on the ballot in some races.

As a result, the Iowa Libertarian Party this year will contest only a handful of legislative races, no federal races, and only one statewide race, the all-important gubernatorial election.

Stewart, the retired founder of Frontier Co-op in Norway, Iowa, has topped the 2% mark in statewide contests three times before — for the U.S. Senate in 2014 and 2020 and for the agriculture secretary in 2018 – but the gubernatorial and presidential races are the only ones that count for party status. He also won 26% in a two-way race for Linn County Sheriff in 2016.

Stewart has used unconventional tactics in his previous campaigns. He rode his bike through most counties in the state, stopping at newsrooms and radio stations to pitch his political ideas to anyone who would listen. He pulls around a trailer with an image of himself portrayed as Uncle Sam.

During his bid for county office, he ran ads in Washington, D.C., promising to hunt down members of Congress and send them to an international criminal tribunal for their role in the war on drugs.

Such stunts can be double-edged swords for alternate candidates. They have to be a little brash to get attention, but they also run the risk of coming across as crazy.

Stewart said he has no such gimmicks planned in his 2022 campaign for governor. He uses it as a vehicle to build the party, unlike the solo efforts of his previous runs.

“I don’t think there’s a shtick this year, but if there is, it’s the first time I’ve had a campaign team,” he said.

Jeni Kadel, Libertarian candidate for the new House District 40 in Altoona, coordinated with Stewart to collect signatures for their candidate petitions.

Statehouse nominees weren’t included in last year’s law increasing signature requirements, but they were affected by a 2019 law moving the third-party nominee filing deadline from August to March. If the Libertarians regain party status, they could nominate candidates by convention rather than by petition.

“Rick is very focused on building a structure to help libertarians gain and maintain access to the ballot,” Kadel said.

The current political landscape in Iowa — with an increasingly dominant Republican Party and a struggling Democratic Party — could bode well for Stewart’s chances of securing 2% in a three-way gubernatorial race. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is the sure favorite against Democrat Deidre DeJear.

It’s a far different prospect than in 2018, when Iowa had a competitive and expensive contest for governor. Reynolds and Democrat Fred Hubbell have each raised more than $10 million. While multiple polls suggested Hubbell had a narrow lead throughout the campaign, Reynolds won by about 3 percentage points.

Iowans bombarded with media coverage and ads that year knew it was a tight race, perhaps not the time to use your one vote on a candidate who won’t win. Libertarian candidate Jake Porter won 1.6%, about 5,000 votes short of the mark needed to retain party status.

This year, in a non-competitive race with an incumbent shoo-in, Stewart hopes more voters will be willing to try something different.

“In a tight race, they will vote for the person they are least afraid of. … If they think the person they’re least afraid of is already going to win or lose, they can say, “I want to vote for someone I like. My job is to make sure they find out who I am,” he said.

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