SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A new political avenue toward statewide elected office and Congress may be opening in New Mexico as the Libertarian Party achieves major party status, giving its candidates ready access to the ballot in 2018.
Failed presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2016 won a historic consolation prize for the Libertarian Party by surpassing 5 percent of the popular vote in his home state of New Mexico, thereby lowering daunting signature requirements for Libertarian candidates.
Strong showings at 2016 elections in Iowa, Kentucky and Massachusetts also are making it easier for the Libertarians to get on next year's ballot.
New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, elected in 2014 as a Republican, is giving "heavy consideration" to a run for governor under the Libertarian Party, his son and campaign adviser Blair Dunn said Monday.
State Libertarian Party Chairwoman Elizabeth Hanes says at least five people have expressed interest in the Libertarian nomination for governor, though she declined to name them.
Second-term GOP Gov. Susana Martinez cannot run for re-election in 2018. The GOP and Democratic primaries for governor already include well-financed campaigns from two current members of Congress: Steve Pearce, the sole Republican candidate so far, and Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham in a crowded field of Democrats.
A year ahead of the general election, the Libertarian Party in New Mexico has about 7,100 registered voters and just one declared candidate in a major race — who has yet to file a nominating petition. The filing deadline for federal and statewide candidates is Feb. 6.
Grady Owens, a 32-year-old undergraduate astrophysics student in the tiny crossroads community of Mayhill, has begun collecting signatures for what he acknowledges as a longshot campaign to win New Mexico's southern congressional district, where Pearce will not run for re-election. He has high hopes for the party that espouses minimal government and maximum personal freedom, but also said it has not been easy to track down signatures from registered Libertarians in rural Otero and Lincoln counties.
"The more candidates that we start to field, the more legitimate our party will seem to most voters," Owens said.
Independent candidates have to gather about 15,000 signatures to run for governor in New Mexico, and about 6,800 for the state's southern Congressional district. Minor-party candidates have to gather one-third of that amount.
Under major-party status, Libertarian candidates would need just 230 signatures to enter the primary for governor, and as few as 77 for congress. They also need approval at a pre-primary Libertarian convention that Hanes describes as open-minded.
"We do not in any way attempt to dictate our candidates' platform," she said. "The Libertarian Party of New Mexico takes a big-tent philosophy."
The Green Party achieved major-party status in New Mexico in 1994 by securing 10 percent of the vote in a three-way governor's race won by Gary Johnson, then a Republican. Johnson defeated incumbent Gov. Bruce King and Green Party candidate Roberto Mondragon, and was re-elected in 1998.
Johnson announced recently that he is done running for public office and will focus his political energies on a lawsuit to open up televised presidential debates to candidates beyond the Republican and Democratic parties.