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Person casting a ballot at a polling station during voting.

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Six months after their leader died on the campaign trail, Montana Libertarians are struggling to fill the void of Mike Fellows, their chairman said as the party prepares to pick a U.S. House candidate Saturday.

“We miss Mike Fellows. The amount of work that he did. He put in 45 hours a week,” said Ron Vandevender, Libertarian chairman. “We had to get organized. There was no one, not one person who could pick up everything that he did.”

Fellows died in a car wreck near Potomac last September while driving home to Missoula from a campaign event. He was 59. Weeks earlier, he had been hospitalized by kidney failure. He was widely credited for securing “major political party” status for Libertarians, meaning that for 20 years, they haven’t had to gather signatures to qualify candidates for Montana elections.

Montana’s May 25 special election to fill the state’s only U.S. House seat marks the first time the Libertarians will kick off a campaign without Fellows.

Libertarian convention

The party is off to a shaky start. Whereas the state’s Republican and Democrat parties selected House candidates six days ago, Libertarians are meeting in Helena on Saturday to pick their candidate. The Saturday date is worth noting, because initially parties only had until Friday at 5 p.m. to register their nominees with Montana’s secretary of state.

Libertarians fought the deadline, threatening to bring in legal help from their national party if necessary, Vandevender said. They argued that by law they had until 75 days before the election to register their candidate with the state, while Secretary of State Cory Stapleton was setting the deadline early because government employees don’t work Saturdays.

“With the average blue collar makeup of the Libertarian Party in Montana, our members could not jump at a moment’s notice to hold a nomination convention,” Vandevender said.

The clock started ticking on selecting a candidate March 1, when Republican Ryan Zinke was confirmed as secretary of the Department of the Interior and resigned his post as Montana’s only congressman. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, had to call for a special election within 85 to 100 days of Zinke’s resignation. Bullock chose the minimum 85 days, which put the election on a Thursday, May 25.

The Libertarians argued that it wasn’t their fault that the 75th day before the election fell on a Saturday. They called foul on the secretary of state for suggesting that Saturday wasn’t a working day, since every day the Legislature meets the offices of the governor and secretary of state are to be open.

Stapleton’s office decided to stretch the deadline to Monday.

“It would appear that Gov. Bullock essentially did not anticipate the challenges that would be associated with picking a Thursday for an election, the Thursday before a three-day weekend,” said Morgan Williams, spokeswoman for the secretary of state. Montana’s special election will take place the Thursday before Memorial Day. “It’s certainly not ideal. That being said, the deadline did fall on a Saturday, and because the office is not open on Saturday, we decided to set the deadline for Friday.”

'Squeezed out'

The Libertarians saw the potential for gamesmanship in the day-early deadline set by the secretary of state, who is Republican.

Libertarians are often regarded as spoilers in statewide elections by Republicans. In 2006, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester unseated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns with just 49.2 percent of the vote. Republican Burns claimed 48.3 percent of the vote, and the remainder — 2.6 percent of the vote — went to Libertarian candidate Stan Jones.

Tester won re-election again under similar circumstances in 2012 with 48.5 percent of the vote. Bullock won election in 2012 with 49 percent of the vote and re-election with 50 percent.

“Did we feel it was a way for us to be squeezed out of the election because of the thought we could not get a candidate filed under the circumstances handed us? Yes, that is a possibility,” Vendevender said.

The fact though was that the government needed to follow the rules of election and not cut the deadline short for registering major party candidates, he said.

The special election puts the Libertarians in an unusual position. To keep major party status, a party must have at least one candidate in a statewide race who wins at least 5 percent of the vote. A party can miss the 5 percent mark in one cycle, but it has to hit it in the next. If it doesn’t get 5 percent for two statewide elections in a row, it no longer automatically qualifies for the ballot, meaning it must gather the signatures of several thousand registered voters for candidates in future races.

Because of the special election this spring and a general election in 2018, its possible Libertarians could be pushed from automatic ballot qualification by 2020, the year that Montana’s governor, U.S. House and one of its U.S. Senate races are in play.

Who votes Libertarian?

But don’t read too much into a sea change of election outcomes if Libertarians exited, said Craig Wilson, Montana State University political science professor emeritus.

“I think the honest answer is we really don’t know,” Wilson said. “You really don’t know where the Libertarian votes come from. Did they come from the Republican Party? Did they come from the Democratic Party? Some of the people voting Libertarian are Libertarians. Some of the people are probably making a protest vote.”

Libertarians vote liberally on issues like marijuana legalization, which would appeal to people who might otherwise vote for Democrats. They also favor small government, which appeals to Republicans, Wilson said.

Libertarian candidates do seem to draw more from Republican-leaning voters in Montana than those who lean Democrat, said Robert Saldin, University of Montana political science professor.

"Democrats, I think, have been thrilled to have the Libertarian Party around because it's been shown that a few percentage points can make a difference," Saldin said. 

It's also possible that more libertarian Republicans will gravitate to a third party if they're dissatisfied with Trump, Saldin said. 

Interest in the Libertarian Party looks good, Vandevender said, as people shop around for a non-establishment candidate.

Libertarians will meet at the Eagles Lodge in Helena on Saturday to select a House candidate from six hopefuls: Rufus Peace, of Livingston; Mark Wicks, of Inverness; James White, of Helena; and Chris Colvin and Evan Gardner, both of Kalispell.

The other candidates in the race are Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte.

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