This Right-Wing Faction Is Waging Civil War Inside the Libertarian Party




  • In Politics
  • 2022-09-29 08:47:10Z
  • By The Daily Beast
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty  

As a third-party candidate, Joe Evans' U.S. congressional chances were always slim. Cheerfully identifying as "bordering on anarchist," Evans was a frequent Libertarian candidate for a reliably Republican seat in Idaho. Undeterred, Evans ran three campaigns before suddenly withdrawing his candidacy this summer.

It wasn't Republicans who finally frustrated his efforts, he says-it was his own Libertarian party.

Across the country, aspiring Libertarian activists and entire state-level Libertarian parties are voluntarily quitting. On the same day in August, New Mexico's Libertarian Party filed to disaffiliate from the national Libertarian Party (LP), and the Libertarian Party of Virginia filed to dissolve. Fed-up Libertarians have formed splinter groups in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. And in Evans' state of Idaho, a contentious set of legal battles have drawn an iron curtain through the local Libertarian party, leaving Evans and other longtime associates on the outs.

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At the center of the shakeup is a brash political action committee: the Mises Caucus. In the few years since its 2017 founding, this socially conservative group has swept state and national Libertarian organizations, officially taking control of the LP at the party's convention this May. Mises Caucus supporters say the group is rebooting America's third-largest political party. Critics say the caucus promotes bigotry, helps Republicans, and is driving everyone but Mises acolytes out of the organization.

The situation "basically reached a point where I could no longer maintain their hostility, their control over party media in messaging while still maintaining the platform and beliefs that brought me into the Libertarian Party," Evans told The Daily Beast.

Mises Caucus founder and chair Michael Heise denied that a widespread rift had formed in the party.

"A handful of sore losers on their way out is not a 'schism,'" Heise said in an email, "it's a few haters in a few states, in contravention of their respective memberships, attempting to destroy the LP now that they no longer control it. The incidents in states such as New Hampshire, Delaware, Wyoming, Vermont, Massachusetts, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, and Virginia have all involved people in positions of leadership violating their fiduciary responsibility to the members of those affiliates by performing actions that violate parliamentary procedure, party bylaws, and possibly even state law."

A National Divorce

Running against opponents from larger, better-funded parties, Libertarian political candidates are frequently provocative. In a now-infamous moment from the party's 2016 presidential primary debate, most candidates argued against state-issued driver's licenses. "What's next, requiring a license to make toast in your own damn toaster?" candidate Darryl Perry asked, prompting applause from the audience.

But until recently, despite the party's bombast, moderate voices often floated to the top of Libertarian politics. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson became the 2016 Libertarian nominee, even though he earned loud boos from the debate crowd when he equivocated that "I'd like to see some competency exhibited by people before they drive."

The Mises Caucus (MC) takes the opposite tack, leaning into provocation.

The caucus has come out in support of "national divorce," the notion of breaking the U.S. into multiple smaller nations. The theory is controversial among libertarians, as are recent tweets from Mises-led state Libertarian parties. The MC-led Libertarian Party of New Hampshire, for instance, has repeatedly called for repealing the Civil Rights Act, and tweeted "6 million dollar minimum wage or you're antisemitic," in reference to the Holocaust. A recent tweet by the national party, called for the immediate firing and prosecution of educators who teach "queer theory or critical race theory."

A Southern Poverty Law Center report found far-right ties at the top of MC leadership.

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Tom Woods, a member of the MC's advisory board, is a co-founder of the neo-Confederate group League of the South (he says he left the group before it got racist), while fellow advisory board member Dave Smith has hosted white supremacists on his podcast. Though some of those appearances were ostensibly for debate, Smith told one such neo-Nazi that he was "sympathetic to the alt-right to a large degree" although he objected to alt-right tactics, the SPLC reported. This year, Pennsylvania's Libertarian Party nominated a gubernatorial candidate who in addition to being a convicted sex offender also helped Rudy Giuliani stage a bizarre Stop The Steal event outside a Philly landscaping business.

Heisse has also posted about his desire to draft former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne as a Libertarian candidate. On Facebook, he wrote that Byrne contributed $5,000 to the MC when it first launched as a PAC. Byrne, who has since become a central player in efforts to overturn the 2020 election in Donald Trump's favor, did not return a request for comment.

Holly Ward, head of the recently dissolved Libertarian Party of Virginia, said the messaging from MC leadership was the "nail in the coffin" for some longtime libertarians.

"It's the most un-libertarian messaging that's coming out of national," Ward told The Daily Beast. "I want no part in advocating for secession or alt-right agendas."

Heise, the MC chair, denied that the caucus was bigoted. "Our detractors are apparently trying to comfort themselves by believing they have spent the last five years antagonizing-and then running a failed rearguard action against-'alt-right bigots,'" he said. "Instead they were simply out-organized by other libertarians who intend to finally make the LP an effective force in American politics."

Rob Cowburn, chair of the MC-led Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania, argued that the MC wasn't really moving the party rightward-it was just opening the door to people on the right.

"I think the only thing that it did is stop ostracizing people who are on the right, who would be with us otherwise, but except for a few of these [party] planks that are completely left and exclude people who are major issue voters on things like abortion," Cowburn told The Daily Beast. "These people who would be with Libertarians, it just opened the door for them to be able to combine with us on the rest of the issues and leave abortion up to each Libertarian to choose for themselves."

But Ward is far from the only Libertarian parting ways with the party after the MC assumed majority control in May.

Even Perry, the candidate who once compared a car to a toaster, branded the MC as so extreme that he's stepping away from active involvement in the LP. "I can no longer in good conscience actively participate in a political organization that doesn't respect its dissenting members, and provides safe harbor to bullies and bigots," he wrote in a blog post this spring.

'Like A Light Switch'

Many critics of the MC say their conflict is relatively new. Jennifer Imhoff, who until this year chaired the Libertarian Party of Idaho, said she had few ideological differences from MC supporters, and until recently "we were very personable; more than cordial, it was like a friendship."

The MC "grew out of the 2016 election cycle with Gary Johnson and [running mate] Bill Weld," Chris Luchini, chair of the Libertarian Party of New Mexico said. Critics within the LP viewed Johnson-and especially Weld-as too aligned with Democrats, too distracted by social issues.

For a time, Luchini agreed. When the MC launched in 2017, with an emphasis on small government and conservative economics, he was attracted to its mission. But he and Imhoff, who also agreed with the MC on some early economic platforms, said the caucus' tactics soon shifted.

"It morphed," Luchini said. "The original statements that were used to found the Mises Caucus, are a dead letter. They don't really matter [...] It's turned into some kind of weird hybrid monster that I don't quite have my brain wrapped around. Is it alt-right? Well there's certainly a lot of that kind of language and symbology being used."

For Imhoff and her husband, who is also involved in Idaho Libertarian politics, some of the change came suddenly. Friendships with MC associates were suddenly severed, she alleges.

"One day it was just a light switch that went off. Suddenly anyone associated with Mises did not like us, and they didn't like anyone who wasn't part of their organization," she said.

The strongest sign that the Imhoffs were on the outs was an internal email circulated among Mises supporters in Idaho. The email, written by the head of the MC's Idaho effort, decried the Imhoffs as "fans" of an anti-MC Libertarian leader, and alleged that the couple had committed a felony leading to their expulsion from the California Libertarian Party. The email noted that the California party had even commissioned a review that "upheld [the Imhoffs' bad standing with the California LP" and that "anyone who wants to rummage through California meeting minutes" could verify the MC's version of events.

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The Daily Beast did rummage through the meeting minutes. Rather than indict the Imhoffs, the review concludes that the Imhoffs' suspension (over inaccurate party registration numbers) was unwarranted. The couple has not been charged with a crime and is now suing the MC and the local leader for defamation. Reached for comment, the MC referred to their lawyer in the case, who said the suit is frivolous and that they are fighting it. The case is scheduled for court next spring.

The letter was the first of a series of battles over Imhoff's Idaho Libertarian party.

In April, a slate of MC candidates ran for statewide party office. Idaho election law requires political parties to hold elections for local officials called precinct committeemen, who need at least five votes to win office. By their own admission, the Idaho LP seldom used this system; precincts are small, often the size of a neighborhood, "so most Libertarians wouldn't even be able to get elected because they don't have five Libertarian neighbors," Imhoff said. "So we've just sort of excluded this from our system."

The new MC candidates didn't follow the same playbook. Five ran uncontested races for precinct committeeman. All five declared themselves holders of county or state offices in the party. Imhoff and Evans' wing of the party objected, arguing that Idaho Libertarians had never used the precinct model.

But the law-and the MC-led national party-was on the new candidates' side. The national party took the dispute to Idaho's Secretary of State, who confirmed that the new guard were rightful office holders. Now in legal control of the party, the MC-aligned group replaced Imhoff as chair.

Evans, the former Libertarian congressional candidate, said the new leadership made it impossible to continue running on the party line.

"They started being abusive, they initiated claims against people that were unfounded," Evans said.

Evans, who disagrees with conservative MC supporters on issues like abortion, withdrew his congressional candidacy this summer.

Neither the current Idaho party leadership, nor its lone member of the state Central Committee returned requests for comment.

Going National

The Idaho LP's constitutional crisis kicked off in April. By May, the MC had scored an even larger win nationally. At the LP national convention that month, the caucus swept party elections, landing its candidates in top offices.

An internal MC guide to the convention reveals a detailed strategy for the event, including the caucus' plans to edit the official Libertarian Party platform to remove explicit support for abortion and nix the line "we condemn bigotry as irrational and repugnant."

The document also included strategies to counter challenges from seven different state parties "due to protracted intra-party conflicts in those states," as well as a plan to hold a new convention in a parking lot "if something dramatic happens" and security made everyone leave the convention.

Already, those intra-party conflicts had prompted some anti-MC delegates to stay home. Will McVay, former chair of Delaware's Libertarian Party, said his state underwent an Idaho-style split, during which the national party sided with the MC faction. McVay doubted his faction would even be allowed to vote at the convention.

"So rather than spend the time, energy, and money to go out and fight a losing fight to be associated with the dumpster fire they were creating," he said. "We just didn't go."

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McVay had another reason for sitting it out. In past years, he usually brought his young daughter to conventions. But after watching a rowdy recent convention in Pennsylvania, complete with a physical scuffle over a microphone, "I was just like, 'I don't want to be around this, and I certainly don't want my 5-year-old getting caught up in the middle of it.'"

Pennsylvania has proved a particularly dramatic battleground for competing Libertarian factions. The state party's bylaws allow out-of-state Libertarians to participate in its conventions-a quirk that both MC and anti-MC Libertarians have exploited in recent years.

"Our opposition used large numbers of legal out-of-state members to prevent a Mises Caucus victory in 2021, then covered it up by illegally failing to publish a credentials report and convention minutes," Heise, the MC chair, alleged. "In 2022 we routed them 3:1 using their own tactics against them, then closed the out-of-state voting loophole for good with a bylaws change."

Kevin Gaughen, a former Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania executive director, accused the MC of foul play in turn, claiming MC affiliates packed the vote by purchasing Libertarian Party memberships en masse.

"As the executive director at the the time, I could see exactly who paid for the memberships because we could see the last four digits of the credit card and the address, all that," Gaughen told The Daily Beast, accusing one MC-affiliated member of buying at least 10 memberships.

"Other people were doing the same thing. They were buying memberships for people. We would call these people to thank them for their membership and they were like 'what are you talking about?'"

Rob Cowburn, the MC-affiliated current chair of the Pennsylvania party, said the party's board had investigated the claims and found no impropriety. Instead, he said, a state party member had canvassed for new recruits and had paid the membership fees for people who agreed to join.

Meanwhile in New Hampshire, where the MC has a particularly strong presence, an anti-MC candidate, who had long been involved in Libertarian leadership, lost the election to a challenger on the right who had recently joined the party. Party rules would normally prohibit such a new member from holding office. But a provision in the bylaws allows people who hold "lifetime memberships" to run for party office immediately. The newcomer bought the membership and was elected that day.

The move "was completely within the rules," Heisse said. He is correct.

Backlash

Gaughen is no longer affiliated with Pennsylvania's Libertarian party. After the MC takeover this year, he and allies launched the Keystone Party of Pennsylvania, which bills itself as a libertarian party without the baggage.

Anti-MC factions in other states have made similar pivots. In Delaware, McVay and other MC opponents have left the state party to launch an organization called Non-Partisan Delaware, which is currently running nine candidates on the general election ballot in November. McVay has also begun work with a group called the Libertarian Defense Fund, which offers services to Libertarian parties dealing with "hostile takeover attempts," namely from the MC.

Other state Libertarian parties have tried other tactics, to varying degrees of success. In 2021, after an MC sweep of New Hampshire's Libertarian party, the organization's former chair attempted to form a second, splinter version of the party. She won support from the Libertarian National Committee's then-chair, Joe Bishop-Henchman, who received so much criticism that he resigned from the party altogether.

"I will not chair a party that knowingly and has now affirmatively chosen to stay affiliated with the toxic garbage that was being spewed by the New Hampshire party and similar bad actors in other states, the violent threats emanating from these people, and the deliberate destruction of the party's ability to appeal to voters and win elections," Bishop-Henchman wrote in an outgoing email to the LNC.

Massachusetts underwent a similar schism early this year, with anti-MC members doing business as the "Libertarian Association of Massachusetts" and MC affiliates operating as the "Libertarian Party of Massachusetts." The national LP recognizes only the latter group as legitimate.

The state-level breakdowns have also spread to New Mexico and Virginia. In August, the New Mexico party published a lengthy letter announcing its disaffiliation from the national party, lambasting the organization for what New Mexican Libertarians described as a refusal to recognize changes to their state bylaws. (The bylaw change was part of an effort to change election schedules so that one faction could not sweep the party all at once, New Mexico chair Chris Luchini said.)

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Virginia's Libertarian party voted to dissolve the same day.

"Statements from the national party, including those endorsing thinly-veiled antisemitism, explicitly welcoming bigotry into the party, reversing the LP's 50-year legacy of support for LGBTQ+ rights, and openly denouncing women's suffrage, the civil rights act, and democracy itself, has rendered the national image of the party functionally indistinct from other alt-right parties and movements," the former party's parting resolution reads.

Heisse, for his part, denied that the MC was the one driving away former Libertarians.

"People who lose elections tend to feel 'alienated,' so our opposition in the party being put off by our 'abrasive tactics' is unsurprising," he wrote in an email. "What exactly constitutes 'abrasive'? The Mises Caucus has never stolen any state parties, or purged any members. Yet, a tiny minority of people who did not get their way in legitimate conventions have egregiously and repeatedly violated bylaws and members' rights time and again in states like New Hampshire, Delaware, Massachusetts, Idaho, New Mexico and Virginia."

But even after rifts, the factional battles have continued. A Twitter account claiming to be the "Keystone Party of Pennsylvania Mises Caucus" describes itself as the "caucus that will takeover the Keystone Party of Pennsylvania." The account, which Gaughen says is a troll, has set about heckling his new party.

Evans, the aspiring Idaho politician who withdrew his congressional candidacy this year, said he might find his way back to the party.

"I'm not ruling it out," he said. "I just know that I will not run as a candidate for the Libertarian Party or under the Libertarian banner with the current leadership."

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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