Seems Independent candidacies have caught on lately. Most notable is the candidacy of Greg Orman in Kansas. Orman has presented himself as a bipartisan problem solver and until recently he led in polls. Republicans have reacted and tied him to Harry Reid and Obama. There are other Independent candidacies this cycle that also show tremendous promise. In Alaska, mimicking Kansas, Democrats dropped an official partisan ticket and formed a unity ticket of an Independent Governor and Democratic Lt. Governor. In Maine, Independent gubernatorial candidate Elliot Cutler is polling around 20% and almost won in 2010.
These candidacies could upset conventional wisdom about the dominance of the two-party system. But, it also leads to the question of whether running Independents is a good way for Democrats to make inroads in red states and Republicans in blue states? Historically, the evidence is mixed as presented here by the Fix. The evidence presented by Blake shows in NY-21, Independents play spoiler far more than have an actual shot of winning. NY-21 is experiencing the same phenomenon this time. Except this time it is benefiting Republicans. The Green Party candidate is polling around 10% and taking a significant chunk of votes away from the Democrat.
Parties have historically tried more transparent tactics. In 2006, Republicans rallied behind Joe Lieberman as an Independent so an anti-war candidate would not damage the Iraq war effort. Of course, Lieberman did not behave like a Republican after nor did he caucus with the party. Rather, he pushed the Independent label in a moderately liberal degree though he did support liberal initiatives like Dodd Frank, the Stimulus and Obamacare. Sure, the GOP made sure Bush had an ally on foreign policy for his entire two years but for the next four years Lieberman was a reliable Democratic vote.
Democrats face the same problem in Kansas. The party has rallied around Orman and most of their partisans will go out and pull the lever for him. But if Orman wins how will he behave? How will he vote? Who will he caucus with? Odds are decent if Orman wants to be reelected he will be more of a moderate Democrat or conservative Republican. These are questions Democrats believe will ultimately be answered when he caucuses with them but to hold onto GOP support (needed to win in Kansas), Orman has been mum on the subject. To a lesser degree you see this same phenomenon taking place in South Dakota.
The South Dakota Senate race features a competitive Senate race between former GOP Senator turned Independent Larry Pressler, Democrat Rick Weiland and former GOP Governor Mike Rounds. Most polls have shown Rounds well ahead but a recent poll showed him up by a mere 3 points. Pressler was in second. Noting the poll, the DSCC is pledging to spend $1 million on the race to boost Weiland but if Pressler wins the party might consider that a victory as well. Pressler would arguably be one of the most liberal GOP Senators in the chamber if he caucused with the GOP.
While the prospects of the parties using this strategy is appealing it has its limits. First-off, you have to find a candidate that is a strong centrist. Second, his resume either has to be just that or he needs to avoid being scrutinized. This will lead to two things; the media will report he is avoiding them and policy positions preferences or his opponent will hammer them for not representing partisans views. As we may be seeing in Kansas Orman may be starting to fall behind because his resume is finally being examined (voted for Obama in 08 and donations to Reid).
Parties using the strategy is intriguing, but unlikely. Numerous Republicans and Democrats, at the state level, are fairing well in red and blue states. See the article here. But that historically has happened a decent amount. At the federal level it is a rarity. Eventually, an Independent would wear out their welcome with voters trying to be something to everybody and lose. Final examples: Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME). Sanders has admitted he is a Socialist. King has pursed a moderate agenda but more in line with the Democratic Party. When Sanders was reelected in his second term Republicans and Democrats acted like he was a traditional partisan. It will be interesting to see how voters behave in 2018 if King runs for reelection. Both parties might be watching intently.