In an election season marked by broad dissatisfaction with the two major parties, Libertarian Phillip Anderson sees a chance to make history in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race.
Anderson, a Fitchburg business manager and owner, is the Libertarian nominee for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin. That pits him against incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh and Democrat Russ Feingold of Middleton, who are much more widely known.
Recent polls show Anderson getting 7 to 8 percent support in the Senate contest. That’s better than a typical Libertarian candidate in a statewide race, but a far cry from giving him a path to contention — much less a victory.
Anderson says the path exists, however unlikely.
“My own mother asked me the same question: ‘Do you think you can win?’” Anderson laughed. His answer: “Yeah, there’s a path — and it’s narrow.”
Anderson sees opportunity stemming from the presidential campaign, which could make 2016 a year of broader visibility for the Libertarian Party.
Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, is getting nearly 10 percent support in many polls — buoyed by the fact that both major parties and their presidential nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are viewed unfavorably.
Far more likely than an Anderson win this November is a scenario in which he plays spoiler. Feingold has consistently led in polls of the race. But if Johnson draws closer to him as Election Day nears, as many political observers and the campaigns expect, it’s conceivable that Anderson could tilt the election toward the candidate from whom he poaches fewer supporters.
Stakes in the Senate race are high because Wisconsin is among a handful of states with competitive races — the outcomes of which will determine which party controls the Senate in 2017.
Slightly more voters who initially backed Johnson defect to Anderson if given that third option in polls, versus the number of voters who defect from supporting Feingold, according to data supplied by Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin from the two most recent polls in August and July. But despite that — and the sizable role libertarians have played in Republican politics in recent years — the polls show Anderson pulling nearly equal support from Republican- and Democratic-leaning voters.
Anderson and Johnson had a chance personal encounter at the Racine County Fair earlier this month, in which Anderson said Johnson urged him to “reconsider” his candidacy.
The Johnson campaign said that account is not accurate. Johnson spokesman Brian Reisinger said the senator never asked Anderson to reconsider his campaign.
“Phil Anderson seems like a nice man. Ron had a brief conversation with him and took a photo, but he never asked him to drop out of the race,” Reisinger said.
The Feingold campaign did not immediately respond to an inquiry about how, if at all, it is addressing Anderson’s role in the race.
Polls: Voters from both parties mull Anderson
Anderson is general manager of Green Cab of Madison and owns Silver Compass Realty. He has never held elected office. Two years ago he ran as an independent candidate for a Dane County state Assembly seat, getting 18 percent of the vote.
Anderson hopes to capitalize on broad discontent with the two-party system and Washington, D.C., by running a campaign that bashes both.
“This particular election, we see as a huge opportunity,” Anderson said of himself and fellow Libertarians. “People are seeing more and more behind the curtain of Washington, D.C. They’re seeing all the nasty corruption, all the influence-peddling, all the dishonesty that come forth from not only the presidential candidates, but from both parties.”
Libertarians have had some representation in the Republican Party in recent years — most notably, through the presidential candidacies of former Congressman Ron Paul. His son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, also ran for president this year.
Anderson said he is aggressively courting Republicans and Democrats. He believes he can capture some disaffected supporters of Bernie Sanders, an independent U.S. senator from Vermont who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Recent polls show at least a handful voters in both parties are open to Anderson’s message.
Recent Marquette Law School Poll results show 5 percent of voters who picked Feingold in a two-way poll between him and Johnson shifted their support to Anderson in a three-way poll. Eight percent of voters who back Johnson in the two-way poll defected to Anderson in the three-way matchup.
Sorting Anderson supporters by party produces a fairly even split. About 11 percent of voters who identified as leaning Republican, and 5 percent of those who identified as solidly Republican, backed Anderson in the poll. He got the backing of 11 percent of voters who identified as leaning Democratic, and 4 percent of those who were solidly Democratic.
Anderson doesn’t have the advantages of being a major-party nominee. He has a small campaign war chest and less of a ready-made campaign infrastructure than Johnson or Feingold. He also has far less name recognition than the incumbent, Johnson, or former three-term senator, Feingold.
Anderson hopes to counter those disadvantages with a grassroots campaign powered by personal interaction with voters and social media.
“That’s our angle, is to get in front of people,” Anderson said. “It’s just a question of being able to compete in the arena of ideas on a somewhat level playing field. And I believe in that sense, we’ll win.”
Anderson on the issues
One issue on which Anderson has strong — and in some cases, controversial — ideas is foreign policy. He denounces recent U.S. foreign policy as “imperialistic” and “hypocritical and violent.”
“We need to stop the meddling that we do overseas,” Anderson said. “I think that we have created a lot of terrorists and a lot of ill will across the world. That’s something that we need to pull back from, while still having a strong defense.”
Anderson said he wants to halt drone strikes against — and opposes sending any U.S. troops to fight — terror groups overseas. He said he would consider supporting manned aircraft strikes against such groups.
Here’s a brief overview of where Anderson stands on other key issues:
Free trade: He’s generally supportive of global trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership — he actually thinks it doesn’t go far enough toward removing trade restrictions — and strongly opposes tariffs and other protectionist measures touted by Trump.
Monetary policy: Like many libertarians, Anderson stands apart from mainstream thinking in both major parties by denouncing U.S. monetary policy as harmful. He wants to stop quantitative easing, the Federal Reserve policy that increases the U.S. money supply.
Abortion: Anderson calls himself “pro-life,” though he said he’s open to circumstances in which abortion would be legal in some cases. Anderson said he favors banning abortion after a certain point in the pregnancy after which the fetus would be deemed “an alive human individual” based on medical evidence — a threshold he said could be anywhere between conception and 26 weeks into a pregnancy. After that point, Anderson said he would oppose any exceptions to an abortion ban, including for rape or incest.
Minimum wage: Anderson does not favor increasing the minimum wage, and in the long term he’d like to see it abolished.
Drug war: Anderson condemns U.S. drug policy as counterproductive. He wants to immediately legalize marijuana. Anderson favors eventual legalization of other drugs too, with U.S. policy in the short term shifting toward treatment of addiction instead of criminal enforcement.
Entitlements: Anderson supports privatizing Medicare in the near future, partially privatizing Social Security by allowing beneficiaries to immediately opt out of the program, and incrementally increasing the Social Security retirement age.
Health care: Anderson wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act and privatize Veterans Affairs health care.