This past Thursday, a debate was held between the three main candidates running in Texas Congressional District 21, the candidates being Chip Roy (R), Joseph Kopser (D), and Lee Santos (L). As moderator James Forsyth opened the debate, he said that the CD21 race was “one of the most interesting and competitive races on the ballot locally in this political season.” Forsyth chalked this up to Lamar Smith’s leaving Congress after thirty-one years in office, but I would add that it was also interesting because the debate included Santos, a rarity in a political system dominated by two parties. As for the debate topics, the moderator chose to ask the candidates about the national debt, immigration, healthcare, guns, women’s issues, climate change, and cyber-warfare.
During the debate, I felt as if a wall was put up between the two-party candidates and Santos. Neither Kopser nor Roy directly addressed Santos and vice versa. Chip Roy even went so far as to say “my opponent” in his rebuttals–note the singular. Speaking of rebuttals, the only direct rebuttals that happened were between Roy and Kopser. Santos never rebutted her two-party opponents and she never directly attacked them either. Hence why I felt like there was a partition in the middle of the room, three-way debates are unusual and I imagine that Roy and Kopser were not expecting to be debating a thirty-party opponent. Case in point: when I spoke to Chip Roy this past week, asking him why a Libertarian should vote for him over Santos, he was at first dismissive of Santos’ chances of winning before listing issues and stances that he thought would be attractive to libertarian voters.
This is not to imply that Santos was irrelevant in the debate. I was personally ecstatic that a Libertarian broke through the two-party stranglehold on debates, but as I watched the debate, I was heavily disappointed. I was glad that the moderator went easy on the questioning because I felt that Santos would not have been prepared for it. The reason I say this is that Santos, at least in the first quarter of the debate, had a “deer-in-the-headlights” look on her face whenever she answered questions. It looked sheepish, as if she herself was surprised to have even been there in the first place. She did not look like she had any confidence at all, she was constantly looking at her notes to remind herself of what she was going to say. Even when she did say something, it was often incoherent at best. When she was answering a question about she would do about cybersecurity, she began by talking about her time living in Kazakhstan and saying that we cannot trust the Russians. She said the same about China, but then she suddenly meandered into mentioning Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who is believed to have been killed by the Saudi government. My question to Santos: what on earth does Khashoggi have to do with cybersecurity?
Other times, it seems like Chip Roy was much better at explaining his position–which often resembled libertarianism–than Santos. On healthcare, all Santos said was that the entire industry should be privatized and that she was victimized by Obamacare. In contrast, Roy laid out a quick but detailed proposal on healthcare: he attacked the idea of placing people into Medicaid rolls as “insuring more people” while advocating for more personal access to physicians and more portable access to insurance. While I do not take issue with either Roy or Santos’ general view of healthcare and where it should go, I felt as though Roy was more articulate and detailed on the issue than Santos. On women’s issues, Santos started her response by talking about LGBT rights and a transgender family member serving in Afghanistan. Again, what does her response have to do with the question at hand? She did back on track with her response, but when asked about Planned Parenthood a few minutes later, she vaguely stated that she “supports Planned Parenthood,” in part because she was a customer there. And herein lies my main criticism of Santos’ performance.
While I have been appalled at the extensive infighting within the Libertarian Party, I do think lines need to be drawn on who should run for office. This is hard to do because as a third-party, we simply do not have the manpower to field a candidate for every single office in the country. Very few Libertarian candidates actually go through a contested primary, so for most Libertarians who run, there is nobody to challenge them on their beliefs from a libertarian angle. This allows for a wide diversity of candidates to run for office, which can be a good and a bad thing. Good because libertarianism is an umbrella ideology and can come in many different forms; bad because some people will associate that one person they know is a libertarian and frame that person as representative of the entire ideology. Additionally, I belong to a camp within the LP that advocates for fielding strong and likeable candidates, not just anyone who wants to run.
At many instances during the debate, Santos was vague about her positions or said something that was anathema to libertarian ideology. Going back to her response about women’s issues, her stance on Planned Parenthood raises some questions. By support, does she mean personal or governmental support? Would she be okay with the government forcing me to pay for her to go see a doctor at Planned Parenthood? For now, I will give her the benefit of the doubt, but her positions on other issues give me pause. On guns, she thinks we need to eliminate bump stocks and raise the legal age of purchasing rifles to 21. On environmental policy, she thinks we need to make a transition to electric cars and “push [recycling] forward,” whatever those statements are supposed to mean. At face value, Santos comes off as a more liberal type that wants government out of most spheres of life but more involved in other places. To be clear, libertarianism is utterly opposed to the idea that government can solve all of society’s problems, and in this vein, Santos is no libertarian. If anything, she’s a left-leaning statist with some streaks of libertarianism, and in the debate, she was completely outflanked by Chip Roy who eloquently (and objectively) made a stronger case for libertarian ideas than Santos did, despite Roy being a self-professed conservative.
If there is any takeaway from this debate, it is that Libertarians need to be critical of their candidates and their party when it fails, as it inevitably will at times. To be clear, I am optimistic about our electoral chances in the years to come and I am generally impressed with the candidates that the LP has put forward in Texas. But I say “generally” because there are Libertarian candidates that I would avoid voting for because I do not think they represent the ideology and the party well enough to warrant my support. And make no mistake, Santos is one of those people. If anything, she did not offer anything unique or exciting in the debate, missing an opportunity to explain to voters why they should choose freedom and liberty over coercion and tyranny and calling out her opponents for endorsing the same tired solutions to the nation’s problems.