Meet Brad Blanton.
Blanton's grass-roots shoestring-budget 2004 run against the GOP poster boy Eric Cantor for the 7th District U.S. House of Representatives seat earned the hardworking Blanton 25 percent of the vote. He lost, of course. But considering he raised a mere $4,000, Blanton's run was a big success. Cantor, after all, was and still is a rising star in Congress.
Two years later, Blanton's blisteringly frank disclosure of genital herpes, homosexual dalliances and drug experimentation painted a picture that gave fellow independents and voters far too much to visualize. In the 2006 race, he mounted a bid to become the Democratic nominee to oppose Cantor, then dropped out, ran as an independent and garnered just 1.6 percent of the vote after encouraging his supporters to vote for the Democrat.
Brad Blanton is far from normal. But his Jekyll and Hyde routine is also far from the norm among candidates for political office who, for a variety of reasons, choose to eschew two-party politics in favor of striking out on their own.
In celebration of Independence Day and as a tribute to the independent spirit that led a few like-minded British colonists to tell the English crown that they'd be going it alone, thanks, Style presents the Independent.
Since the days of George Washington, the country's first and only president elected without ascribing to a political party, it's been a long winter of discontent for America's political independents. Independents tend to blossom in bursts around specific episodes of voter discontent. And there's more than enough political angst these days trickling down from President Bush's record low in public opinion polls, providing fertile soil for candidacies taking root outside the donkey and elephant pens.
"Most independent victories have to do with circumstances that come from dissatisfaction with the establishment," says Dave Wasserman, a house editor for the Cook Political Report, the well-respected, nonpartisan inside-the-Beltway newsletter.
"Independents need one of three things to do well in a large election," Wasserman says. "Some form of previous celebrity like Jesse Ventura, deep pockets like Ross Perot or previous political experience with a major political party, like Michael Bloomberg."
Celebrity candidate Jesse Ventura was known as "the Body," a villainous character, during his pro-wrestling career. The name stuck even after he was elected governor of Minnesota as an independent in 1998, despite his staff's attempt to popularize alternative monikers, like Jesse "the Governing Body." His win was no laughing matter, though. He beat out St. Paul's Republican Mayor Norm Coleman, who now represents the state in the U.S. Senate, and Minnesota's Democratic Attorney General Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III, whose dad was Lyndon Johnson's vice-president.
Billionaire Ross Perot ran for president against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992. As the economy floundered, his campaign focused on reducing the federal deficit, getting the government out of people's personal lives and eschewing social issues such as gun ownership and abortion. He wound up winning roughly 20 percent of the popular vote, but failed to capture a single state.
New York City's current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, hasn't won an election as an independent candidate, or even announced his intention to seek further office as one. Even so, pollsters are scrambling to gauge what his impact might be on the 2008 presidential race since renouncing ties to the Republican Party last month. He was first elected mayor in 2001 after severing ties to the Democratic Party.
Ventura, Perot and Bloomberg are household names, but Perot didn't even win, Ventura probably couldn't have bagged a second term if he had tried, and the idea of a Bloomberg run, though popular, is far from certain. Among academics who study the topic, a different definition of success is used to measure an independent candidate's performance. Instead of actually winning office, such candidates get high marks for convincing just 5 percent of the electorate to vote for them.
Americans are supposed to love a cowboy, but only rarely support third-party candidates. And when they do win, getting re-elected is even rarer. The emergence of a major third party in this country would require a string of re-elections of like-minded candidates outside the Republican and Democratic parties to a variety of offices, academics say, including the presidency.
Ron Rapoport, a political science professor at The College of William & Mary, says the only example we've seen in the last 150 years occurred when the "Republican Party appeared in the pre-Civil War turmoil of the 1850s."
In his book "Three's a Crowd," Rapoport analyzes the dynamics of third parties in America: "Third parties are creatures of the American two-party system. A typical third party derives its support because in some way the Democratic and Republican parties have failed, and its most important impact on the two major parties typically occurs after the third party disappears." When independents do get elected, their terms typically give the machines on the right and left just enough time to re-craft messages that will lasso voters back into the herd.
Parties can help people get elected, but they also can taint candidates and ruin elections. The 2006 midterm elections for U.S. Congress were widely interpreted as a referendum on Republicans, and the party accordingly saw big losses. The same things that hinder independent candidates in national elections can help them in local ones. It's risky to stray from the party line in big races, but easier at the local level to jettison chunks of a national platform that are politically inconvenient and tap into personalities and issues that loom larger in smaller communities.
The state board of elections doesn't keep a count of how many independent candidates have registered over the years, but including races for boards of supervisors, the House of Delegates and state Senate, there are 18 independents in the field this year in metro Richmond.
Consider Delegate Katherine Waddell, I-Richmond. "In Waddell's case you had Brad Marrs, someone who made a monumental error by attacking one of her donors in a mail piece and it backfired," explains Cook Political Report's Wasserman. Marrs, a Republican, tried to discredit Waddell by knocking two gay donors who had contributed to her 2006 campaign. The press ran with the story and Waddell eked out a victory.
But Waddell also had more going for her than independence. She has deep roots in the Republican Party. She had volunteered in local elections since she was a child, handing out candidate pamphlets, and she continued into adulthood. When her two daughters were grown, Waddell picked up steam and turned those volunteer positions into paying gigs working for John Hager when he was lieutenant governor and Jim Gilmore when he was attorney general.
All the while, she felt her party slipping to her right. Waddell says she's fiscally conservative but thinks Republicans have become bogged down in social issues, such as abortion, which she thinks should be a woman's choice.
"One day I just walked into a Planned Parenthood and said, 'Can I vent?'" says Waddell, who started the Virginia chapter of Republican Majority for Choice in 2001.
Slowly, she says, the realization came that she needed to run.
"Sometimes it's the only thing to do, to say, 'Hey, people are not being represented.' People are not to the right or to the left. They're much more moderate. I don't think the General Assembly represents Virginia."
So she ran and won. Now, without the party dictating an agenda, she runs a more grass-roots, bottom-up office. The legislative accomplishments she points to were generated from constituent requests and issues in her district. She passed bills related to the murder of Chip Ellis in Midlothian, conditions on the Huguenot Bridge and a dispute over a historic home in Windsor Farms.
Local issues are popular with voters, but they may not be enough this year. Popular Republican Manoli Loupassi, a former Richmond City Council president, is running against her this November and already has raised twice as much money as Waddell. She also faces another independent in the race, local attorney Bill Grogan, a former Democratic candidate for the same seat, who runs on a government and tax reform platform. But Waddell remains confident.
"Remember," she says, "I have two I's by my name: independent and incumbent."
Waddell's not the only independent in the House of Delegates. She's joined by Watkins Abbitt Jr., I-Appomattox, and Lacey Putney, I-Bedford. Both men were Democrats until national party shifts in the 1960s led to fundamental rifts among southern Democrats and their northern and western counterparts. At that time, U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Jr. ran a ferociously efficient Democratic machine. He opposed school desegregation, as the national Democratic Party was making a hard left turn and supporting integration.
"In Virginia, we had a party realignment from 1969 to 1977 that caused many conservative Byrd Democrats to run for a while as independents before they became full-fledged Republicans," says Larry J. Sabato, the longtime political science professor and head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "At one point in the early 1970s, I believe there were 13 independents out of 100 members in the House of Delegates."
Dan Palazzolo, a political science professor at the University of Richmond, says that at about that time a lot of 18-year-olds were coming into the electorate and combined with the backlash against Nixon in the 1960s dramatically inflated the number of people who identified as independents nationwide.
"Oddly, at the same time, a liberal, Henry Howell of Norfolk, ran for and won the lieutenant governor post in 1971 as an independent, following U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.'s re-election as an independent in 1970," Sabato says. "In 1973, Howell almost won the governor's post as an independent [with 49.3 percent of the vote] and then Byrd was re-elected as an independent in 1976."
It's not always obvious when a bout of independence will strike the electorate. In local races, the symptoms of dissatisfaction among the voters can get lost on pundits.
"That [Waddell won] was completely unexpected," Wasserman says, "because we political scientists and journalists tend to dismiss independents and really don't have our ear to the ground."
That's not wise, either for the pundits or for the major party candidates, especially in local or smaller statewide elections, says Hanover County Registrar Robert Ostergren, who's seen his share of independents give party candidates a run for their money and sometimes win. Ostergren points to Chuck McGhee, who has since become yet another Republican face on the county's all-Republican Board of Supervisors. McGhee ran as an independent tired of county Republicans allowing developers free rein.
"If [independents] get effective with campaigning or the issues are right in the area, they can win," Ostergren says. "If I was a party-backed candidate, I wouldn't take them lightly."
Andrew Morehead hopes to resonate with Hanover voters the same way McGhee did during his first run. Morehead advocates a major slowdown in the county's approach to growth and development.
"I'm running on the Andrew B. Morehead for Cold Harbor supervisor ticket," he says, explaining that he has limited funds and no party endorsement. "But it is hard without the backing financially of a party."
Although repeated mention of the Marrs campaign letter in the press undoubtedly helped push Waddell over the finish line, not all independent candidates are lucky enough to garner such media attention.
Silver Persinger is running for the 9th Senate District in the Statehouse as an independent against Donald McEachin. He complains that in a Richmond Free Press article reporting McEachin's victory over five-term incumbent Sen. Benjamin Lambert, the paper reported that McEachin faced no "well-funded independent" challenger.
Persinger is offended his name didn't make the article and says it's the media's job to "educate the public of who's seeking office and let the voters decide."
This is not his first run for public office. He was on the ballot last year for City Council although in Richmond, mayor, City Council and School Board elections are not partisan. He has run as a write-in candidate for mayor and lieutenant governor and plans to run for president as a write-in in 2008. He's realistic about his odds, though.
"I'm not sure how my message is going to resonate," he says of his potentially controversial platform. He favors monetary policy reform, increased funding for mental health care and child care for the poor, a New York City-sized cigarette tax to pay for transportation and legalizing marijuana for recreation, medicinal and industrial purposes.
Persinger says his political convictions are mostly shaped by his readings of late-19th-century political histories and philosophies. He buys books on eBay to keep his library growing and is trying to launch his own chapter of the Free Socialist Party.
Waddell's competition, Grogan, holds radical ideas too, but his run is a lot closer to the mainstream tax reform is traditional GOP territory. But it's not the point of the policies, he says, that is central to his decision to run as an independent candidate. It's the point of believing in the fundamental intelligence of the voters.
He admits it's a somewhat idealistic belief, but "I ran as a party candidate and I can tell you that the parties treat voters as if they are stupid."
Hanover's Morehead agrees: "To have an independent voice, you can entertain the ideas and suggestions of an intelligent person who has intelligent ideas irregardless of their affiliations. You don't have to feel like you're alienating yourself from a party [by talking to members of another party] and expose yourself to being dumped by your party as we did see with Benny Lambert."
Lambert lost in the Democratic primary last month to McEachin largely for breaching Democratic ranks to endorse macaca-smeared Republican George Allen.
There's a difference between independent candidates, who rely on their own funds and charisma to carry the campaign, and third parties. Third parties try to magnetize a group of like-minded people, brand their values and fill a variety of offices with them. But operating outside the established party system often makes elections brutal for independents. Third parties also can provide additional planks to build a platform for an otherwise single-issue candidate.
"I think candidates that focus on a single issue are kind of dooming themselves," says Leonard Harris, who chairs the Libertarian Party of Virginia. "If you look at the [independents] that do well, they're willing to cover all the issues. It's fine if they want to run on a single issue it will highlight the issue and give them something to talk about but the ones who are winning aren't talking about a single issue."
And depending on a candidate's standing, parties can provide more than talking points. They provide cash, campaign staff, training and advertising.
"I'm in Washington right now. There are two teams up here and those teams are loaded in terms of fundraising and networks," UR's Palazzolo says. "We do have multiple parties in this country; they just don't have a lot of support."
Independent candidates also can face roadblocks in the two-party political system, particularly where state-access laws govern the voting booth. During this past legislative session, state Delegate Leo Wardrup Jr., R-Virginia Beach, proposed a plan requiring independent and primary candidates to pay fees equal to 2 percent of a year's salary for the office, just to get on the ballot.
"We are actually trying to be a major party," says Harris, who also chairs the Henrico County Libertarian Party. He reluctantly agrees that his party's candidates are, by many of the relevant defining criteria, independent candidates. He bemoans the realities of what Palazzolo observes. "One of our biggest problems is the way the ballot-access laws are written," Harris says. "If we don't try to be a major party, it's harder to get on the ballot."
Existing laws requiring petition signatures and registration fees still place boundaries both physical and financial in front of potential independent candidates.
To better gauge voter sentiment, many independents say they would like to see the implementation of something called "instant runoffs." On an instant runoff ballot, voters would list their first-, second- and third-choice candidates. That way if no candidate gets a majority of first choices, the winner can be determined by eliminating the candidates with the fewest votes and recounting. So, say you want your Green Party candidate to win, but if he loses, you'd rather see the Democrat in office instead of the Republican. If you ranked your choices in that order and the Green candidate gets eliminated, your preference still affects the outcome.
"It promotes third-party candidates, but you're not throwing away your vote" by voting for a candidate you don't believe in or you think can't win, says Persinger, who supports instant runoff voting.
For independents, winning elections isn't everything.
"There are some independents in Virginia who don't seem to be serious candidates," concedes Green Party of Virginia spokesman Kirit Mookerjee. "I'll give you an example. There was a candidate who ran on a single issue for lieutenant governor of Virginia and he ran on the single issue of legalizing marijuana. I don't believe the purpose of running was to get elected, but [rather] was to draw attention to that single issue."
Threatening to split the vote over a single issue can be effective. In the recent ultra-close U.S. Senate race between George Allen and Jim Webb, representatives from both parties were negotiating with Independent Green candidate Gail "Gail for Rail" Parker to try to win her endorsement and woo away her 2 percent vote.
Neither satisfied Parker, though, by taking up her pet issue, funding for high-speed rail throughout the state to reduce traffic, and Parker remained in the race and netted about 26,000 votes. The race was decided by less than 10,000 votes.
Finding ways to raise the party's profile yields incremental successes, too. Richmond Green Party Chairman Scott Burger says he believes in strategies like vote trading. In recent national elections, Web sites have cropped up that match voters who want to support Green candidates, but don't want to risk helping select a Republican candidate in a close race. In 2004, the Green Party ran David Cobb, a California lawyer, for president against George W. Bush and John Kerry.
"I traded with a woman in Massachusetts," Burger says. "She voted for Cobb and I voted for Kerry." He says he sees evidence that his party is succeeding in spreading the word. For instance, the mayor of Richmond, Calif., is a Green.
Rapoport, the William & Mary professor, argues that the very visibility those Green candidates are cultivating might be their undoing. He quotes historian Richard Hofstadter, saying, "Third parties are like bees; once they have stung, they die." Rapoport argues that Hofstadter might as well have said "because they sting, they die." A successful campaign by a third party or independent candidate is a blueprint for how the main party needs to react to co-opt their voters, says Rapoport: "'Three's a crowd' then, because the two major parties have such a strong incentive to crowd out the third-party movement in subsequent elections by appealing to its constituency."
Still, you never know.
"The independent party that political scientists think about in this country is a broad-based limited government in all senses," Palazzolo says. Although Republicans have traditionally touted their party's limited government stance on fiscal issues, a major plank in the GOP platform is military spending. Democrats are typically in favor of social spending on welfare, health care and education, but want to keep the government out of abortion and gay marriage.
"There's probably a lot more support out there for an independent candidate than you would expect," Palazzolo says. He says if given the choice of identifying as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent, one-third of people will claim independent.
"There's always a reserve constituency out there. Is it bigger these days? Not sure," says Palazzolo. "There is a constituency out there. It's just a matter of engaging it." S
Staff writer Colby Rogers contributed to this report.