HARRODSBURG, Ky. — David Patterson is driving around the small town he patrols as a cop, when he veers off a main road into a small lot in front of a building labeled "GUNS." He slows the car to a roll as he points out one of the few yard signs anywhere in Kentucky with his name on it.
"In front of the gun shop," he chuckles. "Of course."
The sign itself is the obligatory red, white, and blue, and with miniature stars and text so small it almost requires a squint to read. Below his name is the office Patterson seeks: the United States Senate.
Patterson is off-duty and in shorts and sneakers, but there's still a handgun holstered to his hip. It presses visibly against his tee shirt. "I'm a big Second Amendment guy," he says.
David Patterson is unlikely to be the next senator from Kentucky. He has little money, next to no campaign infrastructure, and is trying to take on Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his well-funded Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. But his shoestring Libertarian candidacy could still shake up one of the nation's most expensive and consequential races.
Patterson is more than a little aware that being a libertarian cop — "kind of an oxymoron, right?" he says — is unusual. The first thing he tells me when we meet in Harrodsburg is that he prefers the term "peace" officer to "police" officer. "Police is really synonymous with..." he says before cutting himself off. "Well, it's got a negative tone to it."
He jaywalks twice across one of Harrodsburg's busier thoroughfares in the course of a 20-minute walk, as he explains the advantages of libertarian policing. "Wouldn't it be better to have a police officer who's a libertarian than a police officer that's not?" he says. For instance, Patterson says he's less likely than some to dish out a speeding ticket, so long as the offender isn't drinking or clearly endangering the public. "Wouldn't you rather not get a $200-and-something ticket?"
"I try really hard in my work to not cite people," he says, before adding, "Does that mean I don't write tickets? No. I still write tickets."
In the coming weeks, Patterson must turn in 5,000 signatures to get on the November ballot. He and Libertarian Party officials are confident they'll hit the mark. They've raised enough money that, as of two weeks ago, they began deploying paid signature-gatherers.
Beyond that, Patterson's got a Facebook page, 40 lawn signs, 100 bumper stickers, a website, and that's about it. "It may not be the most professional looking thing, but when you have people who are willing to do it for free, you don't get all the bells and whistles," he says of david4senate.com. What little he campaigns, he does between shifts in his full-time job as a cop. "I try to answer emails and phone calls when I can," he says, though he admits he's stopped checking voice mails.
Nonetheless, Patterson pulled 7 percent support in a Bluegrass Poll released this week. Third-party candidates often fare best in races that are brutal and negative, as Kentucky's Senate race has been and is expected to remain. In 2013, a Libertarian in Virginia's sharply negative governor's race garnered more than 6 percent of the vote. "Let's call it what it is. It's kind of juvenile," Patterson said of the McConnell-Grimes race. "I'm an adult. I don't want to see them go back and forth."
The big question — beyond whether Patterson can, in fact, turn in 5,000 valid signatures — is whether his presence expands the pool of voters or siphons away otherwise lukewarm McConnell supporters. The McConnell-Grimes contest is within the margin of error in recent polls. And most political strategists believe Libertarian candidates are far more likely to draw support from traditional Republican voters than Democratic ones.
"We're not taking — we hate that term — we're not taking, we're earning," says Ken Moellman, chairman of the Kentucky Libertarian Party. He noted that the margin of McConnell's lead — 2 percentage points — was the same with Patterson in and out of the race in this week's Bluegrass Poll.
Moellman is especially familiar with the vote-stealing charge. In 2011, he ran for Kentucky state treasurer as a Libertarian and received 37,261 votes — more than double the margin of the Democratic candidate's victory. "Our goal is not to split the vote," he says, "it's not to dork around with the election."
Born in Louisville in 1971, Patterson has been doing police work since 1996. The hair on his shaved head is thinning, but he still sports a boyish look. Married with two kids from two previous marriages, Patterson says he inherited his father's political party and "blindly voted Republican down the board" until 2012.
That year, he took a liking to libertarian-leaning GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul and then soured on the Republican Party when Paul was pushed aside. He searched for alternative parties online and soon began attending local Libertarian meetings. When no one volunteered to run for Senate this year, he took up the mantle himself. (As for Ron's son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, endorsing McConnell, Patterson says, "He's playing the game.")
"I think it's important for Libertarians to have someone running against Mitch McConnell," says Wes Benedict, executive director of the national Libertarian Party, which has kicked $7,000 into the ballot drive, according to Moellman. "For a Libertarian, there's only one way to describe Mitch McConnell's voting record and that word is 'ugly.' "
Still, Benedict is readying for the blowback and accusations of vote siphoning. "I'll start getting hate mail before long," he predicts.
This Saturday, Patterson will make one of his biggest appearances yet at Fancy Farm in far western Kentucky, an event that marks the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign. Not that he was invited or has a speaking slot. "We're going to stand around out in the parking lot, I guess," he says.
Some fringe candidates try to end up in handcuffs at such events to lure TV cameras that would otherwise ignore them. "I'm definitely not going to do anything to get arrested," Patterson says. He fully expects to be ignored by McConnell and Grimes. "They do not want to give me credibility because I'm dangerous enough as it is."
Patterson will be driving himself more than 500 miles round-trip, including detouring through three other towns to pick up and carpool supporters there. (He expects a total of 25-30 people to join him.) Then, he'll turn around and drive back to Harrodsburg the same day to save money on a hotel. Such is life on a campaign that's scrapped together $1,500. (The state Libertarian Party has raised money separately for the ballot drive.)
Patterson still hopes to win, even if he's realistic when pressed about his chances: "I'd really like to hit the 15 percent mark."
"Would I make a good senator? I don't know. I have no idea," he says. "But I know that I would follow the Constitution, and that's something that's been lacking."