As Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and their armies of anti-establishment supporters denounce the U.S. political system as “rigged,” centrist independents who've long tried to disrupt the two-party duopoly see their best opening in years.
“Welcome to our world,” said Greg Orman, a Kansas businessman who made an unsuccessful independent Senate bid in 2014. The fact “that the primary process is biased has opened the eyes of voters.”
Orman is now working with a group called the Centrist Project that wants to tackle Washington gridlock by electing more independents to the Senate this year. The organization, which helps raise money for Capitol Hill hopefuls, supported a handful of independent Senate campaigns during the 2014 midterm elections, including Orman in Kansas and Larry Pressler, a former U.S. Senator, in South Dakota. Orman and Pressler did better than expected, but ultimately lost to Republicans.
On Thursday, the Centrist Project will announce the group's first endorsement of the 2016 cycle: Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Anchorage, Alaska, who renounced the Republican Party and embarked on an independent Senate run earlier this year. Stock is a Harvard Law graduate, a retired officer of the military reserves, and a 2013 winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called “genius” grant for, among other work, designing a program at the Pentagon to help enlist more immigrants with language and medical skills into the armed services.
The idea that dysfunction in Washington and disunity in the two parties will allow moderate independents their own lane in the center is a longtime dream of a certain breed of American politician—and almost always a pipe dream. With few exceptions, efforts to run centrist candidates as independents have failed to catch on with voters. Independents have usually been spoilers for one party or the other. But this year, Trump and Sanders have exposed the deep schisms and lack of establishment control in their respective parties, and the hope of people like Orman is this will weaken their hold on voters. “This presidential race is so historical that something different is going to happen,” said Charlie Wheelan, a public policy professor at Dartmouth College and founder of the Centrist Project. “We don’t know what that is yet, but it’s hard to believe that things will go back to normal.”
If there were ever a place to make inroads for independents, Alaska, far outside the political mainstream to start with, seems as good a place as any to start. More than 50 percent of voters in the state are not registered with either major party, according to data from the State of Alaska Division on Elections. Two years ago, the state elected an independent governor, Bill Walker, booting incumbent Republican Sean Parnell after only one full term.
“What you see with the presidential campaigns, there’s a big disconnect between the parties and the people,” said Stock, who left the Republican Party earlier this year because of its position on immigration and other policies. “I've been a Republican my whole entire life, but the Republican Party left me,” she said. “There's been a whole host of issues they've drifted away on—the way they fund the federal government, campaign finance, I'm very uncomfortable with Citizens United.” Stock has pledged not to take contributions from corporate political action committees.
Stock needs to collect roughly 3,000 signatures before mid-August to get her name on the ballot and run against Republican incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski, who eked out a reelection victory six years ago as a write-in candidate after she lost the GOP primary. There is currently no declared Democrat in the race, which political analysts categorize, at this moment, as likely to stay in the Republican column in November.
“Anything’s possible, but you bet on the incumbent almost anywhere unless there’s a scandal or something,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, dismissing reports that there are a growing number of voters around the country who are unaffiliated with either of the two major parties. “They’re hidden partisans. All the studies in my field show they vote their hidden party at basically the same rate” as self-identified Republicans or Democrats.
But state-level efforts to recruit more independents to run for elected office are growing—a farm team of sorts for future races—and attempting to tap into the same anti-party energy that has swamped the presidential race.
In Oregon, a record 17 independent candidates will be running for public office this year, marking the first time since 1912 that a third party will be allowed to participate in the state's primary election. The Independent Party of Oregon was recognized as a major organization only last year when its members exceeded 5 percent of registered voters in the state.
“I think people are really starting to wake up and become very disenchanted with politics,” said Phil Fuehrer, state chairman of the Independence Party of Minnesota, which was formed in 1992 to help Ross Perot’s presidential bid and is running candidates in congressional and state legislative races this cycle.
In Massachusetts, the United Independent Party has seen a spike in new membership in recent weeks—it's currently signing up between two and three thousand new members a month, said James Conway, a field director for the party. While the group is still finalizing its slate of candidates for the general election, Conway said he's been reaching out aggressively to local chapters of Sanders' campaign to recruit new supporters.
An expected general-election match-up this year between Trump and Hillary Clinton has led to growing speculation that there may even be room for a third-party candidate in the White House race.
Meanwhile, some name-brand conservatives—including William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse—refused to back Trump and called for a third-party alternative in the presidential race. The lack of GOP unity has added to Republican concerns that Trump’s unpopularity may have a negative effect on House, Senate, and state-level GOP candidates.
While still unlikely, a potential third-party presidential bid could cause voters to look closer at down-ballot independents, said Orman, author of a newly published book titled A Declaration of Independents. Or, at least, that’s the hope. While Orman hasn’t made any final decisions about running for elected office again this year, he has been involved in recent efforts to recruit third-party presidential candidates to run against Trump and Clinton.
In most states, independent candidates have until late summer or early fall to decide whether to run for office, so the number of this cycle’s credible independent candidates will not be known for several months.
“I think the rhetoric of this presidential race will stretch people to the breaking point,” said Wheelan. “This is as fertile ground as we can possibly ask for.”