Why do third-party candidates run if they can’t win? Robert Gehrke asks a U.S. Senate hopeful to find out.

It’s not enough to vote and complain, says Libertarian senate candidate James Hansen. Changing the system takes a bigger commitment.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Earlier this year, James Hansen was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, out in the mountains in Montana working on a project for his master’s in geology.

The spot also happened to be on the course of a 2,745-mile bike race tracing the Continental Divide from Banff, Canada to the Mexico border.

As one rider got off his bike, took off his helmet and asked where he could put his tent, Hansen’s jaw dropped. It was Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico and the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president in 2016.

“I was like, ‘I’m the Libertarian nominee for U.S. Senate in Utah,’ and he congratulated me and gave me a hug and we took a picture together,” Hansen said. “It was super random, but just kind of cool.”

(Photo courtesy of James Hansen) James Hansen, the Libertarian Party's nominee for U.S. Senate, was working on a geology project in Montana when he crossed paths with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the party's presidential nominee in 2016, who was participating in a cross-country bicycle race and they snapped this photo.

Hansen, like Johnson, is a realist. From the time they entered their races, neither man was going to win.

In fact, in a field with multi-million-dollar campaigns being run by Republican Sen. Mike Lee and independent challenger Evan McMullin, Hansen said he would be pleased if he matches the 3.5% of the vote Johnson got in Utah in 2016.

That pragmatic perspective begs an obvious question: With a system so heavily rigged against them, what motivates these third-party candidates to commit the time and energy, and in many cases their own money, to run in the first place?

In Hansen’s case, he had toyed for a while with the idea of running for office. He was dissatisfied with the elected officials and their policies, and decided at the last minute to take the plunge when he saw nobody had filed yet as a Libertarian.

“I want to see a better world, I want to see a cleaner world, a more peaceful world,” he said. “And so I thought, I’m going to run. I’m going to try to get my message out there and have fun with it and see what happens.”

Hansen is one of two third-party candidates in the Senate race (three if you count McMullin), the other being Tommy Williams of the Independent American Party.

Hansen grew up on a dairy farm in rural Missouri and came to Utah about 10 years ago to get his doctorate in physics, but along the way, he discovered he liked teaching more. Today he teaches Monument Valley High School on the Navajo Nation, where he lives with his wife Tahnee and their four kids.

The remoteness of his location — about six hours from the Wasatch Front — has hampered some of his campaign efforts, limiting much of his campaign to social media. He still has spent less than $2,000 on his bid, he said — although he was able to pick up an old school bus, which he painted with his slogan and drives it to county fairs, community events or just parks it on a corner.

When I spoke to Hansen — after he wrapped up parent-teacher conferences last week — he laid out a platform that is largely standard Libertarian fare. He advocates for broad deregulation and reliance on a free market, repealing government subsidies for energy and agriculture. He also wants to remove testing requirements for new drugs and limits on malpractice suits.

He believes the United States should stop trying to exert its global power by withdrawing support from Israel, removing nuclear weapons from Europe and lifting sanctions on Iran.

Hansen breaks with some Libertarians in his support for public education funding — although he supports vouchers to let parents choose schools — and he favors government-backed, single-payer health care.

He argues that abortion bans won’t reduce abortion and a woman should have bodily autonomy; he wants to see police reform aimed at reducing police violence and holding officers accountable; and believes marijuana possession and sex work should not be illegal.

“I grew up LDS on a dairy farm and some of the policies I espouse, I’ve been a little nervous. My dad has taken issue with a couple things and my aunts and uncles probably see it and think wow is that really what he’s supporting,” Hansen said. “But I believe, regardless of how I personally feel about something, we should look at what is the best policy based on actual results.”

Hansen said that, as he has met with voters, he has found supporters from across the political spectrum. There are conservatives, he said, who are upset with Lee’s involvement in President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.

“People can do things that — maybe they didn’t break the law — but they still feel that was immoral and wrong to do,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of conservatives who said, ‘I won’t vote for Mike Lee because I feel like what he did was wrong.’”

On the other side are liberal Democrats who, Hansen said, are upset the party opted to back McMullin instead of nominating its own candidate, they “basically have two GOP candidates on the ballot this fall and they feel like they aren’t being represented by having their own party candidate.”

One of those Democrats is Misty Snow, who ran against Lee in his last election in 2016 and was Utah’s first transgender candidate for state office.

“I’m not voting for McMullin or Lee, and Hansen is the only other choice,” she said. “Unlike McMullin, Hansen is pro-choice and much better on LGBTQ rights.”

Hansen is hoping he will make it onto the stage for the senate debate, sponsored Utah Debate Commission — but he’ll need support from 10% of voters in a poll due out in the coming week. If he doesn’t, he said, he hopes his example still motivates others to be more engaged in the political system.

“Just get involved, people,” he said. “If you’re not happy with the policies that are happening, if you’re not happy with who’s in office, take a bigger role. I’m not saying people have to run for office, but, you know, find people who are running for office who agree with you and align with your beliefs, and help them out. Spread their message.”