PARKER, COLORADO — Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico who is running for president as a Libertarian, had just wrapped a packed ballroom speech on the south Denver campus of CU-Boulder and already was altering the political makeup of this state.
“Where do I register?” asked Joe Laia, as he approached a busy Colorado Libertarian Party table in the hallway outside. An unaffiliated voter for more than 30 years, Laia changed his registration on the spot to join the Libertarians, a small-government party founded in Colorado Springs in 1971.
“I’m not financially a Democrat and I’m not socially a Republican,” he said about why he switched after so many years as an independent voter.
Led by two former governors— ex-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a respected moderate Republican, is Johnson’s running mate— this year’s Libertarian Party ticket has been called the most “mainstream” yet. When Johnson carried his party’s banner for president in 2012 he received less than 1 percent of the national vote.
Here in Colorado, the state’s own Libertarian Party has billowed its ranks to roughly 40,000 in the past few months. For comparison, the Green Party has about 13,000 members in Colorado. This year was also the first in memory a Libertarian candidate was allowed to participate in a big U.S. Senate debate sponsored by the Western Slope business group Club 20, since the party now makes up more than the required 1 percent of registered voters statewide.
With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on top of the ticket this November, voters have been registering their frustration and looking for different choices. That sentiment might be especially acute in Colorado, where the unaffiliated make up the state’s largest voting bloc. A recent poll has Johnson polling at 10 percent here. A poll in August had him clocking in at 16 percent.
In the crowded ballroom as Johnson supporters packed themselves in and waited an hour for him to take the stage, discontent with this year’s major party standard bearers was a theme.
“The other two options are just so heinous,” said Chrissy Morin of Parker, who came out to see the Libertarian speak in her hometown Monday night. A Republican, Morin plans to vote for Johnson when her ballot hits her mailbox in two weeks.
She was standing near the front of the stage as more than 1,000 others, young and old, packed the ballroom around her. Many sported blue Johnson-Weld 2016 T-shirts with “Be Libertarian with me” printed on the back. Nearby was Shannon Meyer, who registered as a Libertarian earlier that day. Her husband listens to podcasts and a recent one about Libertarianism hit home with the couple.
Another recent convert nearby was Maureen Ragsdale from Colorado Springs, who bolted the Republican Party to join the Libertarians at a registration table just before Johnson spoke.
“I kind of feel like if this is the best the Republicans could come up with than they don’t deserve my vote,” she said.
As Johnson took the stage dressed in sneakers, jeans and a light-blue casual button-down shirt, he had tears in his eyes. His son Eric, who lives in Denver, had just finished introducing him with an energetic and evocative homage about his dad as his hero, a man who acts outside the political spotlight just as he does under its glow.
Typically a laid-back speaker, Johnson, who served as New Mexico’s governor from 1995 to 2003, was revved up. He led with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi about movement leaders first being ignored, then being attacked— and then winning.
“And right now they are attacking,” Johnson bellowed. “And you know what makes me mad? They are attacking me on dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on some geographic locations or some names.”
In recent days, the Libertarian generated negative headlines after blanking on the names of foreign leaders and asking “What is Aleppo?” on a morning TV show in reference to the city in Syria ravaged by war and the center of a refugee crisis.
Earlier, a young, bearded crowd member had confided in others around him that Johnson’s so-called “Aleppo moment” had made him more endearing as an everyman outsider.
But earlier that same day at a Trump rally in Pueblo, Laura Hall, a local marijuana grower in a green pot-leaf T-shirt, dismissed Johnson, who has been active in legalization efforts, for “making stoners look bad” with his missteps on Aleppo and forgetting who Harriet Tubman was— news-making gaffes his son Eric referred to in his own speech as “brain farts.”
During his campaign stop in Colorado, Johnson, who is 63 and lives in Santa Fe, cleaned up his Aleppo moment by launching into a survey of U.S. foreign policy in the war-torn Syrian city.
“On the west side of Aleppo we’ve got Assad, on the east side of Aleppo we have the Free Syrian Army that we support, but they’re allied with the Islamists that we don’t support,” he said. “We arm the Free Syrian Army, those arms end up in the Islamist’s hands, something that we don’t want.”
His voice rising, Johnson ranged from issue to issue, blistering the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates for not allowing him to share the stage with Trump and Clinton.
“If somebody says to you that you are wasting your vote,” he said, “how is there not a more wasted vote than voting for somebody you don’t believe in?”
He offered a takedown of crony capitalism and touted the spirit of the sharing economy.
“The model of the future is Uber,” he said. “It’s Uber everything. It’s eliminating the middleman. It’s allowing you as the direct provider of goods and services to the end user, end user ends up paying less money, you as the provider, you end up making more money. Eliminate the middleman. Uber, sharing economy. AirBnB, the entire world wants to come visit Denver, I’ve got to tell you, all of us have an opportunity with regard to the sharing economy, you rent your place out for the weekend.”
Seemingly unscripted, Johnson riffed on everything from the death penalty— he’s come out against it when he used to be for it— to how he would pardon Edward Snowden. Peppered with one liners like “With Donald Trump there’s the certainty of complete uncertainty,” and “Keep government out of my pocket, keep government out of my bedroom,” he drew laughs from members of an enthusiastic crowd, plenty of whom brought their children to the rally.
Under a Libertarian administration, the U.S. would stop being the world’s policeman and would embrace immigration by making it as easy as possible to get work visas, Johnson said. He called for term limits and a free-market healthcare system where Stitches-R-Us and Gallbladders-R-Us stores abound.
Federal agencies like the departments of commerce, housing and urban development could be eliminated, he suggested. When he recently saw armed, uniformed Homeland Security agents on the streets of Denver, it looked to him like government gone awry. He spoke in favor of marriage equality and said he believed in a woman’s right to choose when it comes to abortion.
“Colorado, you rock,” Johnson said at one point, “because you legalized marijuana.”
“All lives matter,” he said at another point, “but black lives matter.”
The country should be open to a debate about how best to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and would-be terrorists, he said.
And unlike his Republican rival in the race, Johnson painted a sunny picture of America instead of one of crumbling infrastructure, economic anxiety and blood stained city streets.
“Has life in this country ever been better?” he asked. “I mean really. We get along with one another better, we communicate with one another better, our kids are smarter than ever, and yeah we’ve got issues, but we’re dealing with those issues. The number one law enforcement tool right now that we all have right now are our smart phones, and it’s working. We’re becoming incredibly aware, the internet, social media, it’s an amazing, amazing time to be alive.”
And he unloaded praise Denver and Colorado.
“Denver is the most vibrant city in the entire United States,” he said. “It’s the legalization of marijuana, but it’s not the legalization of marijuana, it’s that Coloradans are free. We can do what we want here, we can live our lives as we see fit.”
Following the speech, Tom Kamsickas, a photographer from Fort Collins, wasn’t sure yet if he’ll vote for Johnson for president because he is a pro-life registered Republican. That said, he liked the case laid out by the Libertarian. And, well, he just cannot bring himself vote for Trump.
“I’m going to have to go against my party on this one,” he said.
Back at the voter registration table in the hallway outside the ballroom, Wayne Harlos was waving people over as the crowd filtered out.
Switching parties is “very valuable,” he said. “It sends a signal … that you’re not happy with what they’re doing.”