Making Way for the Independents

(AFP PHOTO / GREENPEACE/ ROBERT MEYERS)

(AFP PHOTO / GREENPEACE/ ROBERT MEYERS)

In the last 72 hours two Democratic candidates for statewide office – Byron Mallott who had been running for governor of Alaska and Chad Taylor a U.S. Senate candidate in Kansas — withdrew from their campaigns. Candidates rarely withdraw from campaigns this close to the election, and when they do it is usually do to health or scandal, or the latter masquerading as the former. Neither Mr. Mallott nor Mr. Taylor, however, were ill or scandal plagued. Instead they both dropped out of their races because an independent candidate — Bill Walker in Alaska and Greg Orman in Kansas — have a better chance of beating the Republican.

For decades, it has been common for third party and independent candidates to be pressured to withdraw from campaigns because they could be spoilers. It is unusual for the reverse to happen, but the tide may be changing. Just two years ago, Angus King ran for U.S. Senate in Maine and got more votes than the Republican and the Democrat combined. He caucuses with the Democrats, who control the Senate, but has said that he might caucus with the Republicans if they take control.

This new path to elective office could pave the way for more independent candidates running in states that are largely dominated by one party. In Alaska and Kansas, generally Republican states, it may be better to be viewed as an independent than a Democrat.

It is also possible that the changing campaign financing laws and media environment will be more conducive to independent candidates, particularly those who can either fund themselves or attract even a small handful of very wealthy backers.

The two-party system, of course, remains very deeply entrenched due to numerous structural and financial advantages enjoyed by the Democratic and Republican Parties. This is not going to change because a few independents win elections in 2014, but these developments may draw the attention of smart party activists on both sides of the aisle who are concerned about how partisan rancor continues to push some voters away from both parties.

Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.