Washington Deserves More Independents

Angus King could get some company in November.

When a candidate for political office refuses to be pinned down on a question of consequence, it's usually cause for suspicion. But not always. Which is in part what makes the campaigns of Greg Orman and Larry Pressler so interesting.

Both men are running for U.S. Senate, Orman in Kansas and Pressler in South Dakota, as independents. Both are refusing to say which party they will caucus with if elected. And both are entirely justified in doing so.

Kansas Republicans are attacking Orman, whose strong showing in the polls pushed the Democratic candidate out of the race. In South Dakota, both parties are attacking Pressler, who has turned what had been a sleepy race into a three-way toss-up.

Their critics charge that voters deserve to know which team they will play for in January. Others claim that their studied independence is either a ruse (nonpartisan? In this day and age?) or naive (they don't understand how the Senate works). Voters can assess for themselves the candidates' honesty and intelligence. But the demand that they declare a political allegiance is nonsensical. Voters who don't want an elected official to act independently shouldn't vote for an independent.

Pressler served three terms in the Senate as a Republican, but he also voted twice for Barack Obama for president. He has staked out traditionally Democratic positions on some issues (for same-sex marriage, Obamacare and expanded background checks for gun buyers) and Republican positions on others (for tort reform and cutting federal spending). Orman, a centrist businessman, leans Democratic but has avoided taking firm positions on many issues.

Republicans charge that both Orman and Pressler are certain to caucus with the Democrats. But if Republicans win control of the Senate, both may join the majority in order to enjoy greater influence over budgets and legislation. Angus King, an independent senator from Maine, currently caucuses with the Democrats for exactly that reason (and has reserved the right to switch parties if the Senate changes hands).

With control of the Senate up in the air, there is no percentage in committing early. And if the election leaves either party needing help from the independents to form a majority, King -- and Orman and Pressler, if they win -- would be in a position to negotiate plum committee assignments. If they act as a bloc, their power would be that much greater.

Orman and Pressler have nothing to gain and everything to lose by announcing a party affiliation now. Doing so would undermine part of their campaigns' raison d'etre: rejecting the partisan war in Washington.

It is ironic -- one word for it, anyway -- that their claims of independence have themselves become the subject of partisan debate. It is legitimate for voters to want to know where they stand on any particular issue. And it is unsurprising that voters mistrust pledges of independence from a politician, no matter his affiliation or lack thereof.

But Orman and Pressler, at least, aren't just claiming to be independent; they're running as independents. Their campaigns are evidence of their commitment. Keeping their own counsel may be coy, but it is also consistent with what they are telling voters. And who knows? Come January, they may actually have a little bit of leverage to force some compromise in Washington.

--Editors: Francis Barry, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net