Why Republicans are blaming a metalhead Libertarian for their loss in Colorado District 8

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Republican U.S. House candidate Barbara Kirkmeyer and supporters watch Election Day returns on her phone on Election Day night, Nov. 8, 2022, at the Hilton DoubleTree hotel ballroom in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village. At the time, the outcome of her race against Democrat Yadira Caraveo was not known.

State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer lost her bid for the state’s new 8th Congressional District, a closely fought and expensive race where Republicans hoped to make gains in Colorado, by less than a percentage point.

A few days after the election, Kirkmeyer offered a few explanations: There was a lack of enthusiasm among voters. There was infighting and negativity within the Republican Party. 

And then there was a guy named Richard “Dan” Ward, the third-party Libertarian candidate in her race.

“So if you go back … and you pull out the Libertarian that took away a bunch of votes, this wouldn't have been as competitive a race and I would've won,” Kirkmeyer said in an interview.

Ward collected 9,280 votes in all — about 4 percent of the total. It was a strong performance for a third-party candidate, and it led Republicans to accuse him of spoiling the race by diverting potential supporters from Kirkmeyer.

In an interview, Ward said he was surprised by the outcome, too. He hadn’t even bothered to watch the election returns, deciding instead to help clean out a garage that night.

“I was really shell-shocked,” said Ward, a master electrician with extensive tattoos and a love of metal music. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is really doing something here.’”

Ward rejects the idea that he was a “spoiler,” saying that the major parties are simply blaming others for their failures.

Whatever the cause, there’s evidence of broader Libertarian gains in Colorado

For decades, they and other third-party candidates struggled to pull in more than 1 percent of the vote in competitive congressional elections. In the last decade, though, nearly two dozen Libertarians have exceeded 3 percent in those races.

Libertarian performances have trended upward for the last 20 years, and they leaped especially high in 2016, when Donald Trump was on the ballot. That year, the party’s presidential ticket captured 5 percent of the vote in Colorado.

Ward has gotten more attention than most because he’s one of just a few Libertarians to ever get into “spoiler” territory in a Colorado congressional election — collecting a number of votes that could potentially have altered the outcome of the contest.

This year, four Libertarian candidates running for the state legislature also achieved similar results.

But even in this moment of relative success, the Libertarian Party is battling over internal politics and an emerging “right-left” conflict, as one member put it — which played a significant role in Ward’s candidacy.

Who is Dan Ward?

Ward, 45, is a first-time candidate who lives north of Denver in Adams County. His family goes back “four or five generations” in Colorado, he said.

“I feel like I’m Colorado,” he said. Although Ward said he initially registered as a Democrat when he turned 18, he already had doubts about the two-party system, and was soon drawn to Ralph Nader, the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000.

Andrew Kenney/CPR News
Richard "Dan" Ward, left, the Libertarian candidate for the 8th Congressional District, and his girlfriend, Alise Cox, pose for a photograph after the election.

“I really respected what he did. It seems like everyone in America has had their life saved by Ralph Nader at some point,” Ward said, referring to Nader’s advocacy for government regulation of safety features like seatbelts in automobiles. 

But over the years, Ward said, he grew frustrated with the Green Party’s lack of progress in Colorado. 

Last September, he switched registrations to become a Libertarian, just a few months before becoming a Congressional candidate. That has led some Republicans to accuse him of being a “plant” — a supposed liberal in disguise who’s only goal was to siphon votes from Kirkmeyer. But he insists that’s not true.

“The ideas really rung true with me too: Personal freedom and responsibility. Do what you wanna do, just don’t hurt people,” he said.

His concerns with the government, he said, include rising property taxes and reforming agencies like Child Protective Services.

How did Ward end up running?

Patty McMahon, who acted as Ward’s press secretary during the campaign, said that she and others pushed him to enter the race.

“Once we saw the boundary lines (of the newly formed Congressional district), we knew he was gonna know CD-8,” she said. “We had to convince him.”

Ward and his allies didn’t aim to win the district. Instead, they were motivated in large part by conflict within the Libertarian Party.

In recent years, a group known as the Mises Caucus has taken power in Colorado’s party and  nationally. Members of the caucus have described themselves as battling “wokeism,” and they’ve moved the party right on certain issues.  

Many Mises members don’t support legal abortion, or at least don’t think they should be part of the party platform. That’s a position shared by the party’s Senate candidate in Colorado this year, who won support from some Republicans by holding stauncher views against abortion than the Republican candidate did.

Under Mises leadership, the state party also has attacked government responses to COVID-19 and derided the efficacy of the vaccines, calling the pandemic a “psy-op to distract, divide, and break.”

Ward opposes Mises — running for office partly so that Mises wouldn’t put their own candidate in the race.

“The Mises-controlled board is giving people the impression that we are the new Republicans, and we do not want to be Republicans,” McMahon, his press secretary, said.

Jordan Marinovich, communications director for the state party, rejected the claim that the new party leadership is simply "new Republicans." He wrote in an email: "As principled libertarians, we regularly criticize both the Democratic and Republican Party. As an example, we assert that Trump began and funded the covid tyranny we have been subjected to for nearly three years."

Marinovich also commended Ward's performance in the election.

How did he get 9,000 votes, and was he really a 'spoiler'?

Ward said he spent no money on his campaign, but did meet hundreds of people at events and at metal shows. 

That was intentional: He said he was trying to avoid drawing the attention of Mises members he feared would sabotage his campaign. He also feared being affiliated with the current Libertarian brand.

“People hear ‘Libertarian’ right now and people think, this guy’s probably alt-right, neo-Nazi type of thing,” Ward said. “I didn’t really associate myself with the party and make myself real public.”

A low-profile political campaign may seem like an oxymoron, but it worked relatively well for Ward. He and McMahon believe that he attracted people from his community of metal music lovers, as well as protest votes from those who couldn’t support either candidate.

“A vote for me, it’s not a wasted vote. It’s a call for change, it’s people saying they’re not happy with the way the system’s working right now,” Ward said.

He doubts he drew many reliable Republican voters, arguing that his long hair and neck tattoos wouldn’t appeal to most conservatives. Instead, he suggested Republicans and Democrats both need to think about why they’re turning off voters.

Politicians were failing to realize “that it’s possible for an average blue-collar worker to get the votes of 4 percent of the people in the district,” he said. “That, to them, is just way too far out there to even think about.”

In the end, it’s impossible to say for certain why Ward attracted so many voters in this close race. Sage Naumann, a Republican political consultant, said that he sees most third-party votes as a sign that voters are frustrated with the major parties. 

It’s not clear, he said, why Ward in particular was one of the stronger Libertarian performers this year. Like Ward, most of the state’s federal Libertarian candidates spent no money and did little organized campaigning, but none of the others broke more than 3 percent in the final results. 

“This was a pretty classic R vs. D matchup,” Naumann said, referring to the major party candidates in the 8th. “I honestly think it’s just an anomaly.”

As for Ward: He’s thinking of running again in 2024.

“I see this just continuing on, trying to heal the Libertarian Party in whatever way possible,” he said. 

But he’s keeping expectations low for his performance in the next cycle — maybe 1.25 percent, he said with a laugh.

Editor's note: This article was updated with comment from the Libertarian Party of Colorado on Dec. 6, 2022.