The Libertarian Policeman Who Could Upend Kentucky’s Senate Race

David Patterson is not on the ballot, but in one of the nation’s tightest and most closely-watched contests, he garnered 7 percent in a poll this week.

National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
July 31, 2014, 5:35 p.m.

(Dav­id­Pat­ter­son4Sen­ate2014/Face­book)

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.”

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