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Is This the Year People Finally Give a Shit About Third-Party Candidates?

Every election involves some spin on the narrative that the two-party system is clinging to the edge of oblivion. But with confidence in Washington at an all-time low, these political interlopers smell blood.

by Kevin Lincoln
Oct 27 2014, 8:50pm

Florida gubernatorial candidate Adrian Wyllie and his supporters wage their lonely assault against the two-party system. Photo via Facebook

Danielle Alexandre manages the campaign of Libertarian Party candidate Adrian Wyllie, a gubernatorial candidate in Florida who's currently polling at around 7 percent, and she talks so fast, and with such furious momentum, that I only manage to transcribe about 10 percent of what she says.

“I think the people themselves were disillusioned into thinking that either one of the [two major] parties would be different from the other,” Danielle tells me. “Both parties continue to damage our country, and I think people are looking for another option. I don’t think the Libertarian Party has changed at all over the last 15 years in what we believe, but I think people are just done with the two-party system.”

This is the narrative that Alexandre and Wyllie, and the rest of the country’s third-party and independent campaigns, have been killing themselves to sell in the lead-up to the 2014 midterms. Every election involves some spin on the narrative that the two-party system is clinging to the edge of oblivion. But now that a Congressional approval rating in the low teens is so commonplace it’s no longer newsworthy, these political interlopers smell blood.

Although Wyllie doesn’t have a chance in Florida, other independent candidates this election cycle have gone from being vote-stealing scapegoats for the major parties to serious contenders. Independent Greg Orman has eked out a slight lead on incumbent Republican Pat Roberts for Kansas’s Senate seat, spurring the GOP to send every famous politician it can find to go shake Roberts’s hand. In South Dakota, cowboy poet Larry Pressler is catching up to major-party Senate candidates Democrat Rick Weiland and Republican Mike Rounds in the polls. And Alaska Independent Bill Walker gained major momentum in the gubernatorial race against incumbent Republican Governor Sean Parnell when Democrat Byron Mallott abandoned his own campaign and came on as Walker’s running mate. Now, Walker has the lead, and FiveThirtyEight thinks he has the best chance of all the independent candidates to actually pull off the victory.

Beyond the favorites, there are independents all over the country making enough noise to disrupt their races. Ray “Skip” Sandman, running for a House seat in Minnesota as an anti-mining Green Party candidate, is fulfilling the traditional role of the third-party challenger: Democrats are accusing him of selfishly ruining liberals’ chances in the race. And the Connecticut Post reports that Democrats have been buoying up independent conservative Joe Visconti’s campaign for governor because it undermines Republican challenger Tom Foley's chances of beating incumbant Dan Malloy. 

Ray "Skip" Sandman is causing trouble in Minnesota.Photo via Facebook

But supporters of the candidates resent being treated as though their votes and efforts are pointless—or worse, some form of sabotage.

“There’s no question that it’s a more difficult campaign than having a party apparatus behind you,” says Crystal Canney, who is directing communications for Maine gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler, an independent, and served the same role for Maine independent Angus King’s successful Senate bid in 2012. “But what you’re going to see over the next decade, or even more quickly than that, is that people are so fed up with business and politics as usual that they’re going to start coalescing around the candidates who can actually put the needs of the many above the needs of the few. There’s a sea change going on. You can feel it.”

Canney’s view matches the macro-narrative of independent candidates through the years:Tthey’re on the right side of history, leading a charge that’s progressive, not necessarily in its politics, but in its vision of what politics can be. In the idealist philosophy of independents, anyone can run for office, and win, merely by representing the people, and the Charge of the Light Brigade is always just over the horizon.

In reality, the candidates who have made a major impact in their races, like Orman and Walker, have counted on traditional weapons of politicking, like millions of dollars in advertising or the support of a conventional party structure. Pressler’s campaign might be the truest evidence of the halcyon future of third-party dreams.

Meanwhile, others are fighting on for single-digit shares of the vote: Steve Shogan, a neurosurgeon now aiming for Colorado’s Senate seat, has framed himself as that tried-and-true underdog character, the only guy who’s concerned with the issues; Sean Haugh, a former pizza deliveryman, and Amanda Swofford, a paralegal, are bringing the national Libertarian crusade to the North Carolina and Georgia Senate races, respectively; and Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who managed to irk Rand and Ron Paul in 2013’s Virginia gubernatorial race, is now running again, this time for the state’s Senate spot.

Sean Hough, a marijuana-loving libertarian and former pizza delivery man running for Senate in North Carolina. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

People like George Smart make many of these campaigns possible. Smart saw Haugh during a televised debate and thought that his ideas were worth hearing. Now he’s helping to host a fundraiser for Haugh, even though he still isn’t sure how he’ll vote.

“The political system has broken down because of this enormous amount of outside money, where it’s like trying to have a meal during a huge food fight,” Smart tells me. “There’s not a chance that he’s going to be elected, but what it boils down to is, do you want to vote for the best person or not?”

This is the conflict for most voters who are sympathetic toward independents. Do you want to vote for the best candidates? Is that what politics is really about? Or is voting just a compromise? Or maybe you should just run yourself? But it would be a mistake to think that all members of the third-party ecosystem are working to create an egalitarian electoral environment. Some are just as partisan as the Republicans and Democrats. And for them, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the country starts to see things their way.

“I think everybody inherently wants to live free, and I think everybody inherently understands that they don’t have control over anyone else’s life and don’t want anyone to have control over their lives,” Alexandre says. “I believe nearly everybody is libertarian at heart, or at least a good portion of them. We yearn to live free. That’s the beauty of our country.”

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