Chairman Candidates Go to War at LNC Debate

Paul Grindle | New Orleans

Last night, four candidates stood on the stage of the Libertarian National Convention to debate their candidacy for the contentious Libertarian Party chairman’s race. The two frontrunners, Chairman Nicholas Sarwark and Think Liberty co-founder Joshua Smith, mostly faced off against each other while former Johnson/Weld 2016 Ballot Access Director Chris Thrasher and Libertarian Socialist Caucus co-founder Matthew Kuehnel sniped at Sarwark and Smith throughout the duration of the debate.

Each candidate offered a similar overall vision of the party. With them as chairman, we’d fight among ourselves less and reach out to potential libertarians more. We’d fundraise more, run more and better candidates, draw in disaffected libertarian-leaning voters, and convince more people that they might be libertarians. The war of moderate vs radical would be irrelevant because the party would work with all libertarians. We would have bigger and bolder victories and become a political force to be reckoned with.

But when it came to the specifics of those platitudes, the devil was in the details. Mr. Smith, whose insurgent candidacy has energized the LP-reformist and right-wing portions of the libertarian movement, advocated for a more active and activist chair. While sidestepping the wedge issue of how to handle official Libertarian whipping boy Gov. William Weld, he took Mr. Sarwark to task for his controversial deciding vote to not pursue suspension of Vice Chairman Arvin Vohra for his anti-veteran, anti-teacher, and anti-age of consent messaging. He did not stop at mere criticism, as Mr. Thrasher did when he hammered Mr. Sarwark on the issue beforehand. Following Mr. Thrasher’s thrashing, Mr. Smith vocalized the frustration and distrust of the party’s leadership that propelled him from a barely known local activist to national libertarian hero to part of the movement: “Are you sorry?”

Mr. Sarwark broke from his characteristic stoic aesthetic several times in the debate, including at Mr. Smith’s request for his apology to the party. He also broke from his usual response of telling his critics to do the job better themselves. The two-term incumbent apologized for any actions he had taken which people felt were harmful to the party. Explaining that his skin in the game was to fight for a better future for his wife and kids, he promised only to do his best and suggested those who didn’t think his best was enough should vote for someone else.

Mr. Thrasher intended to be that someone else. Running as the anti-Sarwark moderate, he essentially ignored Mr. Smith and focused on appealing to the delegates with his experience as Ballot Access Director for Johnson/Weld and his attempt to court donors to the party. He cited his experience losing a large potential donor to the convention to the Satangate controversy and his disappointment in Mr. Sarwark’s critical questioning of those who felt the meme was out of line. But the image of himself as a party doer was hurt by his previous abandonment of the party, only to come back and run as chairman the day of the debate. Mr. Sarwark capitalized heavily on this in the candidate questioning. This isn’t the first time Mr. Thrasher has faced criticism for a change in allegiances. Mr. Thrasher had previously developed a bad reputation among some people associated with the John McAfee 2016 campaign. McAfee’s VP candidate Judd Weiss alleged in an interview that Mr. Thrasher sabotaged their campaign when he was their manager in support of Mr. Johnson’s campaign for the 2016 nomination, allegations vehemently denied by Mr. Thrasher.

Fundamentally, Mr. Sarwark and Mr. Smith presented mirror opposite views of what constitutes satisfactory success for the party. Mr. Sarwark promoted his record of growth in elected officials, fundraising, membership, and relevance as the best the party could do with the limited resources it has. He also mounted a vigorous public defense of Mr. Weld, arguing that he had not made the LP become Republican-lite but rather the LP had made him become more libertarian. He argued that Mr. Weld had stuck around after losing in 2016 while fundraising for and promoting candidates across the country, which is more than other 2016 LP candidates that have since packed up and left.

The same record Mr. Sarwark characterized as heartening progress was the very record that Mr. Smith explicitly ran against, arguing that we were doing better in 2000 and success should not judge ourselves by our relative improvements but the totality of our current status as a party. He argued for more fundraising and candidate support, citing the work he has put into campaigns such as Jeff Hewitt’s campaign for Riverside County Board of Supervisors. He argued for more coalition building, citing his inroads into the crypto community.

He also defended a controversial endorsement he received from Liberty Hangout, a Libertarian media organization, as evidence of his style of outreach being successful. According to Mr. Smith, their recent purge of alt-right contributors at the site was a result of his campaign. He unapologetically declared he’d rather push groups like them in a libertarian direction rather than ignoring them.

Surprisingly, the candidate who gained the most from the debate in absolute terms was “Chairman Meow,” Mr. Kuehnel. An avowed anarcho-communist who promotes Medicare-for-all as libertarian pragmatism and abolishing private property as libertarian radicalism, his campaign was by his own admission never intended to give him the role he was seeking. It instead sought to give his Libertarian Socialist Caucus and its sister caucus, the Audacious Caucus, more visibility and legitimacy within the party.

Starting at near-zero support, there was little possibility he could’ve had any less support than he started with. Therefore, any delegates who became more sympathetic to him would constitute a win in its own right. Though many delegates remained comprehensively unconvinced of his ideas, by withstanding a room full of vehement and constant boos while arguing that the bottom half of the political compass needed to band together to fight the state, he was able to get his message out to potentially susceptible delegates who would not have otherwise noticed his Facebook jihad for a left-right libertarian alliance.

His campaign was also intended to ruin Mr. Smith’s chance of winning the election. On that front, he has had far more success. His relentless campaign against Mr. Smith on almost every conceivable issue under the sun has hobbled the Mises Caucus’ candidate and it bled over into the debate. In his opening statement, Mr. Smith came out with an immediate acknowledgment that his struggles with child support and family are weighing on some delegates minds, as previously reported by various libertarian and third-party websites. Mr. Kuehnel’s attacks on Mr. Smith as a deadbeat dad and domestic abuser over his unpaid support and ex’s uncorroborated claims of abuse were potentially defamatory enough to bring about a lawsuit by Mr. Smith against him. But that lawsuit allowed Mr. Kuehnel to claim Mr. Smith was utilizing the state against him, a charge Mr. Smith not only accepted but doubled down on.

The defamation charges themselves are nested in a larger suit against the feline socialist. Mr. Kuehnel’s threats to leak an internal chat log from Think Liberty that contains aggressive and offensive rhetoric by Mr. Smith if he didn’t drop out of the chairman’s race provided the backdrop of a blackmail lawsuit against Mr. Kuehnel. Though the lawsuit was panned for its citation of potentially inapplicable federal statutes and Mr. Smith’s claim it came from his lawyer despite its document header claiming the suit was pro se, Mr. Smith claimed it was a rough draft of what will be his attempt to fight back against unjustified aggression and fraud against him.

The self-titled “Communist Cat” defended his attempt to pressure Mr. Smith out of the race in a dark admission that this is how the game is played.

“Welcome to politics,” he meowed.