Third-Party Scheming

Both major political parties have a rich recent history of propping up third-party candidates

By Kellyn Brown

This year your general election ballot will have an asterisk on it. No, it doesn’t mean your vote won’t count. Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who filed a number of appeals to keep Green Party candidates on the ticket and was continuing his effort after the deadline to print them, placed it there.

He really wanted those candidates to qualify and it’s easy to understand why. The Green Party can siphon votes away from Democrats just as Libertarian candidates can take votes from Republicans. Stapleton is a Republican, but both major political parties have a rich recent history of propping up third-party candidates.

On this year’s ballot, next to the asterisk, it will say the secretary of state and other parties are challenging a Montana Supreme Court decision that affirmed a lower court ruling that removed Green Party candidates. However, that challenge is unlikely to succeed. And for the second time in two years the courts will have overruled Stapleton in regard to who qualifies for an election.   

Then, like now, Judge James Reynolds invalidated signatures gathered for the Green candidates to qualify. In 2018, it’s still unclear who funded the effort. This year, however, the Republican Party acknowledged spending $100,000 to gather signatures, and the commissioner of political practices found that it violated finance laws by not reporting the spending. After several hundred people asked that their names be removed when they learned who was behind the petitions, Reynolds granted their requests, which resulted in the candidates’ removal. Stapleton appealed, and appealed again, but to no avail.

For its part, the Green Party of Montana said in both 2018 and 2020 that it had nothing to with gathering signatures. Which makes sense since this year’s Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate is, or was, Gary Marbut, the president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association who previously ran for state House as a Republican.

In what could be tight races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governor, these developments matter. Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester knows firsthand.

In the closing days of the 2012 U.S. Senate race, libertarian candidate Dan Cox got an unexpected boost when radio and TV commercials began airing in support his candidacy, calling him “the real conservative.” But he didn’t pay for them; liberal activists supporting Tester did. Cox ended up garnering about 32,000 votes. Tester beat former Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg by just 18,000 votes.

To be sure, Democrats weren’t involved in the scheme to place third-party candidates on the ballot in 2012. Nor were they involved in 2018 when Rick Breckenridge qualified as a Libertarian to run against Tester and Republican challenger Matt Rosendale. However, like six years prior, Breckenridge benefitted from outside money in the form of an anonymous campaign mailer calling him the “true conservative” in the race.

In response, Breckenridge appeared to throw his support behind Rosendale, saying he would “endorse him in his continuing effort to be the front man in the cause of liberty.” Breckenridge later walked that back and remained in the race.

In the end, Tester beat Rosendale by about 18,000 votes, a bit more than the 14,500 Breckenridge earned. This year, Rosendale, the current state auditor, is running for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat. There is no Libertarian candidate in the race. And probably no Green Party candidate either.

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