Until Dec. 28, there were two former Western governors seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
One remains in the race. Jon Huntsman, Jr., was governor of Utah from 2005 until he resigned in 2009 to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. He hasn't gained much traction to date -- a reputation for sanity has not been much of an asset in this contest -- but polls show he might do well in the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.
At least Huntsman got invited to most of the GOP debates. The other former Western governor, Gary Johnson of New Mexico, was nearly invisible. He appeared at only two debates out of 18. That helps explain why the two-term governor (1995-2003) left the Republican Party on Dec. 28 and announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination from the Libertarian Party.
The announcement came at a press conference in Santa Fe, where he said he had been "disappointed by the treatment I received in the Republican nomination process. I had hoped to lay out a real Libertarian message on all the issues in the Republican contest. The process was not fair and open."
He observed that "candidates with no executive experience like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were allowed to participate while I, a successful two-term governor with a solid record of job creation, was arbitrarily excluded by elitist media organizations in New York."
He fits pretty well with Libertarians, who might be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Johnson favors a balanced federal budget, the elimination of corporate income taxes, and repealing Obama's Affordable Care Act. Those are standard contemporary Republican positions. But he also supports gay marriage, a woman's right to choose, and legalized marijuana -- none of which are exactly standard GOP principles.
"I have a lot of Republican history, and a lot of Republican supporters, but in the final analysis," he said, "I am a Libertarian --that is someone who is fiscally very conservative but holds freedom-based positions on the issues that govern our personal behavior."
As governor, Johnson promoted smaller government and lower taxes, and left the state with a surplus. His environmental policies generally advocated less of a federal presence and greater state involvement and authority.
The Libertarian Party's 2010 platform supported "a clean and healthy environment and sensible use of our natural resources" since "pollution and misuse of resources cause damage to our ecosystem." However, "governments, unlike private businesses, are unaccountable for such damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection." As for foreign policy, "the United States should both avoid entangling alliances and abandon its attempts to act as policeman for the world."
The Libertarians claim to be America's largest "third party" and generally get on the ballot in all or almost all of the 50 states. The party has Western roots; it was founded in Colorado in 1971, and held its first national convention a year later in Denver. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, was the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee in 1988.
There are several other candidates for the Libertarian nomination, which will be awarded at the party's national convention in Las Vegas in May. Libertarian presidential candidates typically get about 400,000 votes, not enough to have much effect on a national election. Some hold local office, among them Bill Masters, sheriff of Colorado's San Miguel County.
Conventional wisdom has that Libertarians siphon votes away from Republicans (just as Greens might take otherwise Democratic votes), but Johnson says that on account of his pro-choice stand and support of equal marriage rights, he could even cut into Obama's support.
Ed Quillen writes from Salida, Colorado.