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Libertarian Spices Up Sarasota Special Election

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Libertarian Alison Foxall, center, is flanked by Republican James Buchanan and Democrat Margaret Good

A special election will be held Feb. 13  in Sarasota to replace State Representative Alex Miller, who resigned in September. Three political newcomers are on the ballot - including a third-party candidate. But do non-traditional candidates really stand much of a chance of winning?

Alison Foxall is running for House District 72, which takes in a broad section of Sarasota County. But she isn't your typical candidate.

"When I go knock on doors, some people ask me what party are you from? And I tell them I'm a Libertarian," she says. "And the reaction on their face, they smile, and they say, oooh, that's good. I like that."

Libertarians espouse a philosophy of less government is more. That includes both the fiscal and social sides of that coin - keeping the government out of your wallet and your bedroom.

"People are just tired of this negative electoral system we have, and they just want a change," she says. "Some people are also saying, you know what - it doesn't matter anyway, they don't have my interests in mind. I'm going to vote for someone I actually believe in."

This is the first run for public office for Foxall, who owns a Sarasota digital marketing firm. She's been busy raising money.

"We've already broken fundraising records for any state House or state Senate Libertarian campaign in the history of our state," she says.

Alison Foxall

But that pales in comparison to her more established opponents. Republican James Buchanan - the son of local Congressman Vern Buchanan -and Democrat Margaret Good have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Foxall. And they've got big names on their side - former Vice President Joe Biden has endorsed Good. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is also campaigning for Good, and President Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, will hold a get-out-the-vote rally for Buchanan.

Libertarians might have an attractive message in this age of mistrust of government in general. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of campaigning - do third-party candidates really have a snowball's chance in Florida?

"They don't exactly have the money or the name recognition and the get-out-the-vote machinery in place that is imperative to win when you have a competitive election," says University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus.

She says grassroots politics can take a candidate only so far.

"You still have to spend some money on media. Whether it's radio, whether it's direct mail, whether it's paying people go door-to-door for you," said MacManus. "Those are the kinds of things that parties can provide, and the Libertarian Party just doesn't have deep pockets."

Foxall says the lack of money doesn't really matter that much.

"Our problem is we don't have a quarter million dollars like the other two candidates, so we're not sending negative ad mailers every single day," Foxall said. "But we are competitive. We're really getting the word out and we're very, very aggressive."

Part of that aggressiveness is promoting the need for a change in Tallahassee. Foxall points out that some studies show a majority of younger people, such as millennials, are not registered to either of the two major parties. MacManus says that's going to be a factor in elections yet to come.

"The Libertarian dimension that attracts younger voters is government, stay out of my life. Stay out of my bedroom," said MacManus. "And so that whole  anti-government, invading on my private, individual rights that Libertarians are in favor of is very appealing and attractive to younger voters."

But that may not be as much of a factor in county such as Sarasota, whose demographics skew older. Here, only one-quarter of the registered voters have no party affiliation. Foxall says the key to winning is getting them to the polls.

She points out that Libertarians have won in Florida. Last year, they won a city council race in Miami's Coconut Grove and in Altamonte Springs, near Orlando. So the next step, she says, is winning a seat in Tallahassee.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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