Over the last few weeks analysts and pundits have had a field day with the idea of a number of Independents coming to the Senate. The latest comes from Norm Ornstein. Ornstein envisions a Centrist Caucus that could break the gridlock and get things done in DC. However, these analyses are far more idealistic than reality.
Both of the Independent Senators in the Senate currently caucus with the Democrats. Independent Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is a closet Socialist. Angus King (I-ME) is a moderate Democrat parading in an Independent’s coat. Both have also behaved like partisans since joining the Senate. King has been far from an independent voice in the Democratic Caucus. Sander’s has tried to push his party further to the left.
For there even to be an Independent Caucus or for Independents to carry significant power in the Senate they need a bloc of votes or bodies in the chamber. That is where the Independent candidacies of 2014 come in. Independent candidacies have gained traction in two states; Kansas and South Dakota.
In South Dakota, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler has turned the initially uncompetitive race into a headache for Republicans. However, the race appears to have returned to form with former Governor Mike Rounds appearing to have righted his ship. The most likely Independent candidate to make it to the Senate this cycle can be found in Kansas of all places.
Independent Greg Orman’s candidacy has gained traction due to a confluence of factors. Senator Pat Roberts initially ran an abysmal campaign and was deeply damaged by a divisive primary. Democrats, sensing Roberts was in danger, had their nominee drop off the ballot to make way for Orman who holds several liberal positions on the issues. Only recently with national help has the Roberts campaign come roaring back portraying Orman as a liberal.
There are notable right-wing Independent candidacies. In South Dakota, Greg Howie is taking votes from Rounds. A number of Libertarian candidacies (not exactly Independent but close) are taking votes from both Democratic incumbents and their challengers, leaving several races in doubt. In Louisiana, Rob Manness is winning about 10% of the vote and keeping both Senator Landrieu and Congressman Cassidy well below 50% mark to avoid a December run-off.
Historically, Independent candidacies have often looked strong but fizzled out by election day. Consider recent evidence. Nationally, in 1992, Ross Perot actually led in some polls over Clinton and Bush. In 2000, Nader once polled at 10% before dropping significantly. In recent state elections, in 2009 Independent Chris Daggett almost took the New Jersey gubernatorial race from Chris Christie, polling once as high as 18% in a Survey USA poll. Third parties candidacies often suffer the same phenomenon.
Independent candidacies often lack support from party apparatuses and major donors tend to like partisans that will defend their interests when in office. Independent candidacies often have to play the outsider card and thus cannot court these major donors. Still, in a case like Orman, Independent candidacies can take root under the right conditions.
Odds are that no new Independents will come to Congress in 2015. Orman’s campaign is starting to acknowledge they are falling behind and Pressler, already behind in the three way race, has seen his numbers among conservative Republicans and Independents plummet. No other Independent candidacies have taken root though they can sway key elections. Perhaps in the future we may see more Independents in Congress. Just don’t expect it in the next. Sorry Norm.