Earlier this summer, the Libertarian Party — which advocates an agenda that is generally fiscally conservative and socially liberal — picked former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson as its presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld as its vice presidential nominee.
So far this month, two super PACs backing the Libertarian ticket — known as Purple PAC and Americans Deserve Better — have combined to spend more than $100,000 on TV and radio ads to boost their profile, the Center for Public Integrity has learned. And more ads are on the way.
“America deserves a better option than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” proclaims the new ad from Purple PAC, which goes on to call Johnson the “honorable choice,” after touting him as committed to the Constitution, fiscal responsibility and freedom.
For its part, Americans Deserve Better is trying to cast Johnson and Weld as “the adults” in the 2016 presidential race.
“We don’t have to choose between criminal or crazy,” says a narrator in one of the group’s radio ads. “This fall, vote for the adults, the candidates we can trust — Governors Gary Johnson and Bill Weld.”
The ads’ sponsors
Americans Deserve Better is a brand new super PAC. The nascent group registered its website — VoteForTheAdults.com — on August 1. And it has yet to submit any filings with federal regulators.
Geoff Neale, a former chairman of the Libertarian National Committee who serves as Americans Deserve Better’s treasurer, told the Center for Public Integrity that its required paperwork will soon be submitted to the Federal Election Commission.
Meanwhile, Purple PAC was formed in May 2013. It spent about $420,000 that year in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, where it backed Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who garnered 6.5 percent of the vote. And earlier this year, it spent about $670,000 supporting U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s unsuccessful GOP presidential bid.
As super PACs, both Americans Deserve Better and Purple PAC may collect unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations or labor unions — so long as they don’t coordinate their spending with the candidates they are seeking to aid.
Since its founding, Purple PAC has raised about $2 million. Nearly two-thirds of that — $1.25 million — has come from Philadelphia investor Jeff Yass, a founder of the Susquehanna International Group who favored Paul in the GOP presidential race.
Other top donors to the super PAC include Philip Harvey, the head of sex toy company Adam and Eve, who has given $400,000; Richard Masson, the owner of a thoroughbred horse racing and breeding operation in Kentucky, who has given $250,000; and real estate investor Howard Rich, who has given $50,000.
Harvey himself has also donated $2,700 to Johnson’s presidential campaign committee.
Purple PAC entered July with about $570,000 in its coffers, according to its most recent campaign finance disclosure.
Meanwhile, because it’s so new, it is unclear how much money Americans Deserve Better has at its disposal.
Neale, the treasurer, said a “major donor” had provided seed money to the group, but he declined to identify the funder.
The nascent super PAC will not be required to publicly disclose its donors until later this fall.
Americans Deserve Better’s ad strategy is starting with an experiment: It’s focused on voters in the 2nd Congressional District of Maine. Maine is one of two states that awards Electoral College votes to the victor in each congressional district, rather than winner of the statewide popular vote.
The group will be spending about $80,000 on a combination of broadcast, cable TV and radio ads in Maine during August, according competitive data provided to the Center for Public Integrity by ad tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
Neale said that Maine was a good site to see “how far we can move the needle.” He added that hoped success there would “inspire other donors to give more money” to Americans Deserve Better.
Purple PAC, too, is ramping up its efforts.
It has so far spent about $35,000 on its pro-Johnson ad campaign, according to campaign finance filings. The group’s ads have so far targeted viewers of Fox News, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.
Libertarian activist Ed Crane — a co-founder of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and the founder of Purple PAC — told the Center for Public Integrity that “there will be additional ad buys starting next week.”
Why it matters
Supporters of the Libertarian Party hope 2016 will be their moment to shine. Others worry Johnson could play spoiler in key battleground states.
Four years ago, when Johnson was also the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, he garnered only about one percent of the vote on Election Day.
Now, however, he’s typically polling in high single digits or low double digits. If he can reach at least 15 percent in the polls, he could qualify to participate in the official presidential debates this fall. Not since businessman Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign has an independent or minor party candidate earned a spot in a general election debate.
Political observers say super PACs could help boost Johnson as a credible alternative to Trump and Clinton.
“We know there are disgruntled partisans on the right and left, so in some ways conditions are ripe for attracting people to vote for Johnson,” said Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University.
But, she added: “The buys would have to be quite big to have an effect.”
Neale, of Americans Deserve Better, is hopeful.
“We’re trying to make the Libertarian Party a true player in the game,” he said.