Are Strategic Independents the Future?

The 2019 elections have come and gone and, in many ways, they went they way pundits predicted. Virginia’s legislature flipped from Republican to Democratic control, Kentucky’s unpopular Republican governor Matt Bevin lost to Democratic challenger Andy Beshear, Mississippi’s Democratic attorney general Jim Hood fell short in his bid for that state’s governorship, and Louisiana’s Democratic governor John Bel Edwards narrowly won a second term. However, in many ways these elections are indicative of our modern political state. 

Despite holding an abysmal approval rating of only 34% in the most recent Morning Consult poll, Bevin only lost by 5,000 votes. In other words, the partisan lean of Kentucky almost lifted him to victory, and this isn’t uncommon. Of the five most unpopular governors, three of them won re-election comfortably in 2018: Gina Raimondo (D-RI) won by 15 percentage points, Kate Brown (D-OR) won by six percentage points, and David Ige (D-HI) won by 29 percentage points. This isn’t good for democracy or for government, but there might be a solution hiding in plain sight: strategic independents.

Strategic Independents

In 2014, Kansas Democrats faced a dilemma. The incumbent senator, Republican Pat Roberts, was very unpopular; budget cuts made by governor Sam Brownback, a Republican, had led to massive dissatisfaction in the state Republican party, and Roberts had also faced complaints over his residency and long tenure in Washington. However, Kansas is a ruby-red state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s. Desperate for a way to compete, Democrats turned to an independent candidate, Greg Orman. In exchange for dropping their own candidate, Democrats effectively gained a fighting chance at unseating a Republican senator. While Roberts would ultimately win by 11 percentage points amidst a national Republican landslide, it was a tightly contested race and became the closest Senate race Kansas had seen in decades.

Since then, several other candidates have attempted this strategy – and it has almost worked. In 2016, former Republican congressman Charles Djou ran for mayor of Honolulu as an independent, losing by only four percentage points in the biggest city in the country’s bluest state; in 2018, Alaska’s Republican congressman Don Young won a 24th term in the house by only seven percentage points against Alyse Galvin, an independent progressive who pledged to caucus with the Democratic party.

A Fix for Polarization?

While these candidates all lost their races, they all have one thing in common: they turned races that might not have been competitive into highly-competitive contests. By removing the party label, they provided dissatisfied voters an option that was more appealing to them. Another thing worth noting is these candidates were not exceptionally well-known or popular – Djou had lost his house seat years prior, and Orman and Galvin had never held elected office before.

With a well-known, popular statewide figure, this strategy could potentially be a game-changer. According to the most recent Morning Consult poll, the three most popular governors are Charlie Baker (R-MA), Larry Hogan (R-MD), and Phil Scott (R-VT), all of whom sport over 60% approval in deep blue states. While they might not have a shot at federal office as Republicans, they might prove formidable challengers as right-leaning independents – by eschewing the party label, they might be able to campaign on issues rather than identity. Similarly, Louisiana’s popular Democratic governor Jon Bel Edwards could be a viable senate candidate in the future as an independent.

Strategic Independents Going Forward

The concept of strategic independents is a new and relatively untested idea to be sure. However, one of the most essential features of a functioning democracy is competition. By running away from the party system, candidates can provide real competition choices to voters. Our system appears to keep getting more and more polarized despite an increasing number of Americans eschewing party identification entirely, and both parties are going to have to adapt. Alaska Democrats are set to revisit the strategic independents strategy in 2020’s Senate race, having endorsed independent candidate Al Gross, and Republicans might be wise to try it as well. There’s nothing to lose, after all, but there’s everything to gain.

Eric Cunningham is the editor-in-chief of Elections Daily. He is a lifelong resident of North Carolina and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Communication, Journalism; his work has appeared in The Federalist, The Appalachian, and Ordinary Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @decunningham2.

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