Missed Opportunity of the Year: 'Americans Elect' for Congress

Could this have been the year for third-party candidates?

By all accounts, according to almost every poll, the Republican Party will expand its numbers in the House, the Senate, and most state legislatures. This is not because of a surge in Republican Party popularity. According to the aggregate of all polls, the GOP has a negative rating of 53 percent to 36 percent positive, slightly worse than President Obama. It is not because Americans have enjoyed what's been coming out of Congress; the approval of that body is deep in the red zone, a negative 80 percent to 13 percent. One year and one month after a clash over Obamacare funding led House Republicans to shut down the government, they will be punished with ... more Republicans.

They're lucky, but not that lucky. Six years ago, voters had a chance to punish the Pelosi/Reid Congress for the outbreak of the economic crisis. They sent more Democrats to Congress, and President Barack Obama to sign off on them. (Approval of Congress was about 10 points higher then. Still negative.)

Belatedly, I wondered whether the roving class of donors who want to break the two-party system had missed an opportunity. In 2012, the $35 million "Americans Elect" project did everything to create conditions for an independent presidential candidate. It won ballot access. It sent a bus around the country to drum up enthusiasm. Nobody cared. Only a few thousand people voted in the "online convention" that was supposed to produce a strings-free, spending-cutting independent.

What if it had put that effort into this campaign season? What if, instead of the presidential moon shot, Americans Elect had set out to send some independents to Congress? The gerrymanders of 2011 have put most House races out of reach for the opposition; the only true surprises in this cycle or last cycle have come when independents threw themselves into the gears. In 2012, for example, Democratic Representative Henry Waxman nearly lost re-election, in a safe seat, and great year, to a wealthy independent. He had never been so challenged by a Republican. In 2014, an independent fusion ticket (with a Democratic running mate) has even odds at winning Alaska's governor's race; former Sen. Larry Pressler briefly surged into contention in South Dakota's U.S. Senate race; and one-time Democrat Greg Orman remains in a close race for a Kansas U.S. Senate seat that has not gone Democratic in the lifetime of people who weren't around for World War II.

I called Peter Ackerman, who'd seeded Americans Elect, to ask whether this would have been the year to send independents to Congress. He immediately pointed to Orman's success.

"Greg was on the board of Americans Elect, and he created a great opportunity in Kansas," said Ackerman. "I will tell you, it’s very situational. I'd say there are opportunities at the presidential level, the House level, and the Senate level going forward. There are demands for alternatives to Republicans and Democrats."

Did that mean Ackerman would fund independents in 2016? "Potentially, yes," he said. He paused, and it sounded like that would be his answer. Then he started up again.

"In 1984, there were at least 10 Republicans senators more liberal than the most conservative Dem senators," Ackerman said. "That overlap created a swing coalition that was good for the country. That overlap does not exist today. Under the current two party duopoly, it will never exist. It won't unless we create level playing field, where the two parties are in a real competition and being pressured from the center."

That's the political vision that South Dakota's Pressler had, expressed sort of fitfully, and with little money. That's what Orman's been trying to promise, in between rounds of pure mockery from Republicans who insist he'll just be a loyal vote for Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. There's no real precedent for this; it's been more than eighty years since third parties held a balance of power in either House. But a congressional race, even a Senate race, will never require the mass mobilization and complications of a presidential race. The independence-junkies always assumed that the presidency, and only the presidency, was a big enough target to draw the attention of the press; Kansas, and to a lesser extent South Dakota, proved that the press would flood in to cover competitive, independent campaigns at the congressional level. The big-spending, debt-scolding, party-hating band of brothers did not come together in 2014, and they might have missed more chances to break through.

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