If Marco Rubio, Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle and Joe Miller represent a Republican insurgency, then Charlie Crist and Lisa Murkowski are the counter insurgency.
This year, the first to challenge to the wisdom of primary voters was Florida Governor Charlie Crist. As far back as March, he saw that he was going to lose the Republican Senate primary to Marco Rubio. On April 28th, he announced that he would run as an independent. For months he polled ahead of both candidates, but gradually his support slipped – first from Republicans, now independents and conservative Democrats are abandoning him. Crist now trails Rubio and is near even with Democratic Senate nominee, Kendrick Meek.
Crist’s experience would seem to invalidate the independent path for incumbents or establishment candidates that lose in primaries. Not, however, for the Senior Senator from Alaska. On Friday evening, Lisa Murkowski, having recently lost a narrowly decided primary to Joe Miller, announced that she is staying in the race as an independent write-in candidate.
Some have given Murkowski better chances than most incumbent Senators knocked out in their respective primaries. She has name recognition, money to burn and the support of numerous influential constituencies in Alaska. Were she to win, she would be the first Senator elected through write-in ballot since Strom Thurmond’s 1954 campaign. In American history, only five candidates have won the race for national office through a write-in ballot.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, there is an excellent model for incumbent Senators that lose their party’s primary: the now-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman. In 2006, moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman lost his party’s primary to Ned Lamont. Lieberman was cast out of Democratic ranks over his pro-war stance and his Iraq war authorization vote. Lieberman lost by a significant 4 percent; more than 10,000 of the 283,055 votes cast, but his post-primary maneuver deftly won him back his Senate seat.
Lieberman was able to avoid having to run for the Connecticut senate seat by sounding like a Republican. Lamont attempted to force Lieberman into criticizing him by using rhetorical language of Republicans. Lieberman avoided attacking his opponent and cast himself as simply another breed of Democrat. Lieberman pivoted into true independent – a foreign policy hawk that still represents the Democratic values of Connecticut voters. He was able to remind voters why they had sent Lieberman to the Senate since 1988. In that sense, his Iraq war vote was no curse, it was a sign of this independence. In the general election, Lieberman was vindicated. Murkowski has already fallen into traps that Lieberman avoided.
In the short time since her write-in announcement, Murkowski has had to campaign against every winning theme this year. In a year when voters are rebelling against the establishment, she now has to tout her influence on K Street. When voters are near riotous over spending, she claims that she can bring more pork home than the other guy. In a year when Tea Party candidates are uniting Republicans and Independents, she calls Miller’s positions on social programs and government spending “extreme.” She has painted herself into a corner; Murkowski’s themes sound more like those of an incumbent Democrat than an iconoclastic Republican outsider.
The problem for independent candidates (let alone write-in candidates) is that they do not have a party apparatus behind them, or the loyal party supporters that comes with it. Party member that vote tend to “come home” when it counts.
In New Jersey, during the 2009 local elections, independent candidate Chris Daggett never polled below 10 percent prior to Election Day. The final Quinnipiac poll conducted from October 27th, 2009 to November 1st, 2009, and released on Election Day, showed Daggett taking 13 percent of the vote. Christie won with 49 to 45 percent for Corzine. Daggett only won 6 percent of the vote in the end. What does this reveal? People lie to pollsters, is the first. The second, while people may like the idea of a third party candidate, they like to win more.
Crist is seeing the same effect today, and it is still early. By the time the election comes around, he may see his support near or even with Meek’s. It would not be surprising if he had less support than Meek at the end of the night on Election Day. He will have to depend on Democrats pulling the lever for him when they have spent the last two cycles coming out to vote against him. Democrats will “come home” for Meek.
Why then would Murkowski expect her candidacy to fare any better? Alaska is no Florida, and while Republicans do quite well in that state, there is a deeply ingrained independent streak among the electorate.
Perhaps she wants to go down swinging. Murkowski may simply want to damage the Miller candidacy enough to provide Democratic voters in the state their unobtainable dream – two Democratic Alaskan Senators. That, too, seems unlikely. There are better uses of campaign donations and name recognition than petty goals like point making. She may have data that suggests she can win. If she does, it must also suggest an uphill battle. While Tea Party voters are focused on individual candidates and their ideological purity, polls suggest that general election voters want a Republican Majority in congress to check the White House’s agenda, regardless of the individual candidate’s positions on a given issue. If Murkowski is hoping that independents alone return her to Washington, she probably chose the wrong year.
On the other hand, Murkwoski could have been able to transition her loss into a political movement. If she had the forethought to use her ouster to ignite a third party movement, framing her write-in candidacy as push to represent the disappearing center rather than her own job security and the vague wishes of the “Alaskan people,” she may have achieved some traction.
A Gallup poll from August 27-30, showed that most people, across the political spectrum, support the creation of a third party. Gallup’s findings present hope for those that feel this country’s politics demand another party. Today, 74 percent of independent voters support the creation of a new party. This opinion is shared by 47 and 45 percent of Republican and Democratic voters respectively.
The problem is policy; an independent party would have to fill an unmet need that neither party addresses. This requires the marrying of positions adopted by Republicans and Democrats – for example, a hawkish military policy with social liberalism. Israel’s Kadima party is a good example of this phenomenon. Forged out of the divisive debate surrounding the 2004 evacuation of the Gaza Strip, Kadima allowed then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to combine the fiscal conservatism of Likud with the dovishness of Labour in order to create a viable new party. There is, however, no serious demand for a middle ground on policy today. Voters are saying to anyone that will listen that they want to vote for Republicans, not a non-existent, hypothetical third party that represents their every individual idiosyncrasy.
If there was to be a third way, it will not come this year, and its standard bearer will not be Lisa Murkowski. However, it is not impossible to envision a scenario where a viable third party evolves out of the Tea Party movement. Tea Parties are now more popular that either the Republican or Democratic parties. A party that embraces fiscal conservatism but divorces itself from neo-conservative foreign entanglements may attract enough Democratic voters to represent such a bloc. Today, however, there is no public outcry for such a development. Independents are voting Republican – that is, they are participating, rather than thumbing their nose at the whole apparatus. When that happens, both parties are in trouble.
Until that time, the Republican candidate, if not the party establishment, is the beneficiary of Tea Party anger. Third parties are born of issues, not individuals. Naked opportunism rarely wins elections.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org