What now for third parties, independents?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

It was a great week for Republicans. It was a terrible week for Democrats. And for third party and independent candidates, it was mostly more of the same.

I thought there might be a minor backlash against the U.S. Senate race’s negativity. Nope. Libertarian Nathan LaFrance and Green Mark Swaney each collected about 2 percent of the vote. Libertarians each won about 4 percent in the congressional races, except in the Third District, where Grant Brand won 21 percent as the lone challenger to Rep. Steve Womack.

The governor’s race mattered most to third parties because winning 3 percent would have qualified them for the 2016 ballot without having to collect 10,000 signatures. It didn’t happen. Libertarian Frank Gilbert won less than 2 percent, while Green Josh Drake won 1 percent. That means the two parties will have to beat the streets again in 2016.

Independent candidates – those associated with no party at all – weren’t much of a presence in Arkansas. No independents ran for state or national office, and only one ran for the Legislature, winning 29 percent of the vote.

If a candidate outside the two parties was to win anywhere, it would have been in Kansas. Independent Greg Orman, 45, a wealthy, well-spoken businessman, opposed Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican who has been in Washington so long he doesn’t even own a home in Kansas. Despite polls showing the race a dead heat leading into the election, Roberts won easily.

Voters tell pollsters they’re disgusted with politics as usual, and a record number identify themselves as independents. But they still vote with one of the two parties. The backlash always has been against either Republicans or Democrats, not both. Jessica Paxton, chair of the Libertarian Party of Arkansas, points out that her candidates won far more votes this year than they did in 2012. Still, in this state, the trend is clearly moving toward Republicans, not against the two parties.

Everything about American elections favors a two-party system – including how votes are counted, the way districts are drawn, the sorting of the country into red and blue states, and, of course, the billions of dollars flowing to the two parties and their allies. Major party candidates have an army of professionals helping them; third parties are all-volunteer operations. Realistically, the easiest path to political change occurs within one of the two parties, not outside them. An example is the Tea Party, which succeeded in moving the entire Republican Party in its direction, at least temporarily.

But independent and third party candidates should not be realistic. They should do what they think is right. Libertarians believe in reducing government to such an extent that they simply don’t fit into either party. Greens want far more environmental protections than the corporate-dependent major parties could stomach.

So what now? Mark Moore, who had hoped to run for lieutenant governor as an independent, has filed a lawsuit against a state law passed in 2013 requiring independents to collect the required signatures by March of an election year – eight months before the actual vote. Court precedents seem to be on his side. He believes independents could be successful running for local and state legislative offices if they have deep roots in a community.

Third parties must field those same types of candidates. Ideally, well-known, wealthy candidates who believe deeply in the Libertarian or Green cause would run for governor or Congress, despite the fact they almost certainly would lose. Those candidates are rare. High achievers usually succeed partly because they are good at calculating the odds and picking the right battles.

Greens and Libertarians must make two other changes if they want to make a dent in elections.

First, both parties not only struggle to raise money, but they’re also philosophically reluctant to do so. They need to get over that. If I’ve never heard of you, then I can’t vote for you.

Second, both parties must be more inclusive and less ideologically driven. On the plus side, they make it clear where they stand. Unfortunately, too few voters agree with those stances. If they want to win more than 2 percent, they must broaden what they consider acceptable, think more tactically, and try to appeal to more people.

In other words, Greens and Libertarians should start acting more like Democrats and Republicans. Which, many of them probably would say, defeats the point.

One thought on “What now for third parties, independents?

  1. In the nation as a whole, in the recent election, 14 independent candidates were elected to state legislatures, and 8 minor party candidates were elected to state legislatures. And the piece might have mentioned that Greens elected a state legislator in Arkansas in both 2012 and 2008, although admittedly in unusual circumstances.

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