By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Forty-four percent of Americans are independents, according to Gallup, but only 2 percent of United States senators are, and one of those is Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s really a Democrat. Could a few more independents form a decisive voting bloc that would force Republicans and Democrats to solve problems?
That’s a question Joel Searby and the other founders of The Centrist Project are trying to answer.
Searby ran the 2016 independent presidential campaign of Evan McMullen, a former Republican congressional staff member and ex-CIA officer who won 21 percent of the vote in Utah and 1 percent in Arkansas.
Now, Searby and others with The Centrist Project are trying to recruit and strategically fund credible independent candidates in 2018, with one focus being the U.S. Senate where they could make the most difference.
Congress, you may have noticed, is a partisan mess where the focus is more on scoring political points than solving problems. In the past, the two parties were each a diverse mix of conservatives, liberals and moderates who could work across party lines. But Republicans have moved right while Democrats have moved left, with few left in the center to bridge the gap.
The Centrist Project is trying to step in and find a few states where the climate is best-suited to electing independents to the Senate and elsewhere who are fiscally responsible, practical minded, problem solving, environmentally responsible and socially tolerant.
What does all that mean? Searby said it’s more about an approach to government than a set of ideological beliefs. Regarding being “socially tolerant,” he says he’s a pro-life, pro-family conservative, but the centrist approach means not vilifying the other side or holding other issues hostage.
“That’s how (parties) frame every issue is around enemies and friends, and so we’re just really trying to overcome that,” he said.
Three to five independents in the U.S. Senate could control the balance of power by voting with one party or the other based on the issue, forcing Republicans and Democrats out of their us-versus-them comfort zone. The new independents could work with current independent Sen. Angus King of Maine along with Republicans and Democrats who have independent streaks, including Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.
Searby said the Project is looking for attractive candidates with the ability to self-fund or attract a potential network of supporters – like McMullin or Greg Orman, the Kansas businessman who ran a strong but ultimately losing campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2014. It is talking with potential Senate candidates in eight states where an independent might have success because of a state’s political climate and size – a small, cheap state like Maine being preferable to a big, expensive one like California. Meanwhile, it’s also targeting other races in an effort to get wins wherever it can.
Arkansas does not have a Senate race in 2018 is not a target, anyway. The state’s rapid transformation from a conservative Democratic state to a Trump-Republican stronghold makes it less likely an independent could emerge here, Searby said.
It’s going to be an uphill climb. Most Americans who tell pollsters they are independents aren’t really. The reality is, whether they admit it or not, most are reliably voting for one party or the other. Moreover, congressional gerrymandering (drawing lines to benefit a party) and Americans’ self-sorting personal decisions have made most districts reliably Republican or Democrat. In other words, we typically live amongst people who vote like us in states that are either red or blue. Meanwhile, the parties have huge, well-funded infrastructures and have written election laws to favor themselves. The system strongly encourages voters to choose one party over the other, even if it’s just to pick the lesser of two evils.
After running McMullin’s long-shot campaign, Searby believes that independents eventually will break through. He said political professionals who are fed up with the two parties seemed open to different kinds of candidates. Members of the media seemed ready to tell a new story.
“The bottom line is, we know we’re pushing against decades of trends and beliefs and partisan work and money, and it’s going to be hard, but just because something’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing, and just because something’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not going to come,” he said. “We really believe that we are pioneering a new way in American politics.”