Informed Americans are aware that ultra-leftist Green Party candidate Ralph Nader is in the Democrats' doghouse for capturing just enough votes in several key battleground states to tip the electoral college count to George W. Bush, thus depriving Al Gore of the presidency.
Not so widely known is the Libertarian Party's influence on last November's election. If Republicans have reason to cheer Nader's showing, then Democrats have cause to cheer the Libertarians. Without Libertarians the U.S. Senate would not be coming under Democratic control; it would be firmly in GOP hands, 51-48, even after Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' defection from the GOP.
Just as it's assumed that a large majority of Nader's votes would have gone to Gore if the Green Party hadn't been on the ballot, so it is that Republican incumbents - John Ensign in Nevada and Slade Gorton in Washington state - would still be in the Senate had Libertarians not been on the ballot. In both states the Libertarian candidates won far more votes than the GOP incumbents' losing margin.
The Libertarians also made a difference in New Mexico's presidential vote. Gore carried that state by a razor-thin 366 votes. But Bush, says pollsters, could easily have made up those votes and then some if Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne hadn't attracted 2,058 votes.
The Libertarians' showing has prompted Republican strategists to key much of their 2002 congressional campaign to limited government themes that appeal to Libertarians.
The challenge to Republicans will be to reconcile the Libertarian wing of the party with its social and religious wing. That will be tough.
Many Libertarians perceive social and religious conservatives as judgmental busybodies who seek to impose their way of life on everyone else, while the conservatives often view libertarians as anything-goes Philistines with no religious or social values.