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North Dakota native Gary Johnson grabbing attention as third-party presidential candidate

MINOT--Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party's candidate for president, is in the midst of his second run for the White House, crisscrossing the U.S. in the midst of one of the most unpredictable elections in recent memory. His voice was distant on...

U.S. Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks during the "Politicon" convention in Pasadena, California, U.S. June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
U.S. Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks during the "Politicon" convention in Pasadena, California, U.S. June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

MINOT-Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party's candidate for president, is in the midst of his second run for the White House, crisscrossing the U.S. in the midst of one of the most unpredictable elections in recent memory. His voice was distant on the phone in a call from Chicago last month, but the former New Mexico governor said he still remembers North Dakota-the state where he was born.

"There's a zillion stories, there really are. I have dozens of memories growing up in North Dakota-cold as can be, ice skating, church, family," said Johnson. "It's all there."

Johnson was born in Minot, moving with his family to Moorhead, Minn., when he was 5, and a year later to Aberdeen, S.D. His most vivid memories of those years range from Boy Scouts to elementary and middle school, all interspersed with visits to his grandmother back in his hometown.

"I don't know how you define it any better than formative years," he said. "Everybody's on time. There's just an unquestioned work ethic ... plenty of individuals hold that work ethic, but speaking as a state and an entire region, I think that's one of the takeaways that I have. Just the whole honesty, integrity-that's what was ingrained in my life."

When he was 13, the family moved to New Mexico, where Johnson attended the University of New Mexico and started his own business during his senior year, which eventually grew into a sprawling contracting company. He was elected Republican governor of New Mexico in 1994, serving two terms.

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By 2012, he found himself on the national stage when he launched his first campaign for president-also as a Libertarian.

He's picked up plenty of idiosyncrasies along the way. A slew of national media pieces have described his athletic prowess, from Ironman triathlon finishes to a climb up Mt. Everest; he's quoted in a recent New Yorker profile recalling that his latest marijuana use came in the early springtime (he's a proponent of its legalization).

And his "work ethic," above all else, could come in handy in the next several months.

The presidential third-party ticket of Johnson, whose partner on the Libertarian ticket is former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, is straining to break the relative obscurity of the Libertarian Party. The campaign needs a polling average of 15 percent to qualify to appear on the presidential debate stage, per the nonprofit group that has sponsored the debates since 1988. It's a kind of electoral critical mass the campaign needs to secure and generate real interest in November, Johnson said.

But he thinks he'll get there. Johnson points out a July 17 CNN-ORC poll that puts his campaign at 13 percent in a four-way matchup against Republican Donald Trump, Democrat Hillary Clinton, and Green Party member Jill Stein. It's a number making noise in national news media, with many outlets speculating last month that he might elbow his way into the debates.

There's still work to do, though. According to RealClearPolitics, a four-way polling average between the same candidates put Johnson at 7.2 percent on Thursday. That more than doubles Stein's support at 3 percent, but is still far behind Clinton and Trump, who stood at 40.4 percent and 40.2 percent respectively.

Johnson sees his campaign as a sort of centrist option to those two mainstream candidates.

"We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't have the opportunity to win," he told Forum News Service. "That is the opportunity, and I'm describing it as a big six-lane highway right down the middle of Trump and Clinton."

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On the issues

Many of Johnson's positions are a familiar refrain for anyone who knows Libertarian politics. He's in favor of smaller government, both in the fiscal and social sense; according to his campaign's website, he wants to balance the federal budget and replace income and payroll taxes with a consumption tax. He's also in favor of legalizing marijuana, and has a well-publicized history of using it. The war on drugs, his website points out, has helped contribute to a higher jail and prison population, and he's in favor of drug rehab and reduction programs for dealing with harder illegal substances. Personally, Johnson said he's pro-life, but favors policy that respects women's right to choose.

"Responsible adults should be free to marry whom they want, arm themselves if they want, make their own decisions about their bodies, and lead their personal lives as they see fit-as long as no harm is done to others," his website reads.

When it comes to North Dakota, Johnson is clear about how he sees the Peace Garden State-and more specifically, the Bakken-fitting into his vision for the nation.

"Whether North Dakota likes it or not, that's our Saudi Arabia," he said, adding his praise for the recent lifting of the country's oil export ban. "It's huge-it really is huge. I don't want to underplay that at all."

His administration would permit fracking, Johnson said, pointing out some of his environmental concerns for the practice but also the "enormous implications for our economy."

And despite his small-government approach, Johnson's respect for the value of the Environmental Protection Agency has been widely reported. He explained that pollution regulation is crucial for the country's future.

"The notion that you wake up every morning to a layer of coal on the ground ... what are the health implications of something like that?" Johnson said.

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But some EPA protections have been less popular than others in North Dakota. Perhaps most notably, the agency's Clean Power Plan was put on hold by the Supreme Court while a lawsuit against it-backed by 27 states, including North Dakota-progresses through a federal appeals court.

Asked if there are any EPA rules he would come back and revisit, like the Waters of the U.S. rule or the Clean Power Plan, Johnson said that "you're making a couple of them evident to me right now."

North Dakota's Libertarians

According to the North Dakota Secretary of State's records, Johnson won 5,238 votes in the 2012 presidential contest-a hair more than 1.6 percent of the state's total vote. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the state with 188,320 votes, or about 58.3 percent of the vote, which comes to roughly 36 times as many ballots.
Other races on the ballot told a similar story. Eric Olson, who vied for the state's congressional seat, won 3.24 percent of the vote; Joshua Voytek, who ran for Public Service Commissioner, took 4.34 percent. No Libertarian candidate was listed on the general election ballot in the governor's race or that year's U.S. Senate race, according to state records.

This year, a slew of Libertarian candidates showed up on the primary ballot and are set to vie for seats this November.

Fargo businessman Marty Riske is running for governor with Voytek as his running mate; Robert Marquette is running for Senate; and Jack Seaman is vying for U.S. House. Other party members are vying for public service commissioner, insurance commissioner, state treasurer and state auditor.

The party's state chairman, Tony Mangnall, ran for North Dakota Tax Commissioner in 2014.

Mangnall said Libertarianism is on the rise and he's impressed by the amount of interest this election cycle, which he said he never expected when he took the job last year.

"I'm doing everything I can to keep up," Mangnall said, pointing out that, beside the surge in candidates since 2012, his party's newsletter has gone from 200 to 3,200 physical and email addresses since he's taken the helm.

"I could easily make being a chairman a full-time job this year," he said. "I'm not sure that was the case in years previous."

Mangnall is a Fargo-based television producer for "Poker Night in America" on CBS Sports Network. He describes himself as a man with a "healthy distaste for authority," and he's been a Libertarian since Ron Paul's campaign during the 2008 election cycle.

He said there are two reasons for the recent uptick in attention.

Primarily, Mangnall said, the party's message of liberty over bureaucracy is starting to resonate; but he noted the unpopularity of both Clinton and Trump has helped.

"I would say their unpopularity has certainly bolstered our numbers, but we were a big deal going into this race," he said. "The failure, the obvious public, trash-fire failure of the big two parties is helping us quite a bit, but mainly it's our ideas and the things we stand for that are drawing to people to us."

Appeal to both sides

Bo Wood, an associate professor in the University of North Dakota's political science and public administration department, said he's been observing North Dakota politics for more than a decade, and he's been tuned into the national political scene since the 1980s. He doesn't remember Libertarians making a splash.

"Certainly in modern election history, they've been a nothing; they've been a side-note," he said, pointing out the only really effective third-party inroads were made by the Green Party in 2000 and by the Reform Party in the 1990s. He pointed out, though, that some of Johnson's positions-like legalizing marijuana, but not harder drugs-appear to be a softer set of Libertarian stances that might appeal more to moderate voters.

Dana Harsell, one of Wood's departmental colleagues, said any chance Johnson has of winning a state is a very long shot. There are plenty of factors in play; could he be read as a viable alternative to Bernie Sanders, or could he become identified with his Republican past, during which he vetoed hundreds of items sent before him by New Mexico's Democrat-led legislature? What's more, Harsell said, polling rates don't always reflect voter turnout rates, and it's not clear if an appetite for third-party candidates will last.

"A lot of it is going to be perception," Harsell said. "I don't think he is, necessarily, a moderate candidate, but I think his views might appeal to both sides in some ways."

'We need to win North Dakota'

Come Nov. 8, Johnson's campaign might not end at the ballot box. The New Yorker reported this month that he's aiming for a situation in which no candidate breaks 270 electoral votes, forcing a state-by-state vote from Congressional delegations on the House of Representatives. Each state's set of representatives gets one vote, per the Constitution.

Despite Harsell's emphasis that a Libertarian victory is an unlikely outcome-regardless of how it happens-Johnson is staying optimistic.

"First of all, the strategy is to win outright," Johnson said. "We would not be doing this if there were not the opportunity to win outright. But short of that, we do need to win a state, we do need to win some delegates if there's any chance of pushing this into the House of Representatives."

What's one state he'd like to win?

"We need to win North Dakota," Johnson said.

Related Topics: ELECTION 2016
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