OP-ED | Winning As An Independent Candidate Is Possible, But . . .
Recently, former State Rep. Jonathan Pelto appeared on WNPR’s “Where We Live” to talk about his possible third-party challenge to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Pelto, a Democrat who has been a fierce critic of the Malloy administration, promised that he wouldn’t just run to “spoil” the race for Malloy — but to make sure his issues are heard and, perhaps, to win.
Easier said than done.
Independent candidates often run in statewide races, though they rarely have much of an impact. Sometimes, independent candidates capture the public imagination by championing an issue or providing a much-needed alternative to the two established parties. This is what Pelto has been talking about doing in this election.
It’s still very hard for that kind of candidate to win. Tom Scott was this kind of candidate; he was a popular radio host who ran in 1994 on an anti-income tax platform. His lawn signs read “Repeal the Tax,” and he had a pretty passionate, dedicated following.
But in the end Scott got only around 10 percent of the vote.
So how do you win as an independent candidate? Only two candidates in recent memory, Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and Joe Lieberman, managed to do it — and they had several distinct advantages.
The first successful modern independent campaign was the gubernatorial campaign of Weicker in 1990. Weicker, a liberal Republican, had been beaten by Lieberman (more on him in a bit) in the 1988 U.S. Senate race, largely because members of his own party were fed up with him. He was initially lured into the 1990 race by Republicans who wanted him to keep U.S. Rep. John G. Rowland, R-5th District, from winning the nomination.
Instead, Weicker decided he’d had enough of the increasingly conservative Republicans, and announced in March 1990 that he was running as an independent. Democrats nominated the unpopular U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison, D-3rd District, while Republicans ran the mustachioed Rowland.
Weicker mended fences with Republicans while luring disenchanted Democrats. He picked Eunice Groark, Hartford’s corporation counsel, as his running mate and gathered endorsements from other high-profile members of the GOP. In the end he eked out a two-point win over Rowland, 40 percent to 38 percent of the vote. Morrison brought up the rear with 20 percent, while another independent candidate won the remaining 2 percent.
Weicker won largely because he was perceived as independent, something voters desperately wanted during the economic crisis of the early 1990s, when the two established parties were seen to have failed.
His victory was geographic as well as ideological. He drew support from populous Hartford County, northern Connecticut, and the eastern half of the state. Rowland did best in the more conservative western part of the state, especially Fairfield County. Rowland even won Bridgeport, the last Republican to do so. Morrison won only three towns, New Haven and two of its suburbs. He was, in short, the disaster that Democrats needed 20 years to recover from.
The second independent candidate to win a statewide race was Sen. Joe Lieberman, who lost the Democratic primary in 2006 to businessman Ned Lamont. He lost the race partly because of his stance on the ongoing Iraq War, but also because Democrats in the state had become utterly fed up with him.
However, Lieberman vowed to fight on, and gathered enough signatures to run as an independent. Republicans nominated a genial nonentity named Alan Schlesinger, who couldn’t manage to garner even 10 percent of the vote. Most Republicans and independents voted for Lieberman, who appealed to voters’ appreciation of his independent stands. He defeated Lamont by 10 percent, grabbing votes from all over the state.
So how did they manage to get the better of the two-party system?
Well, first, both men had established statewide followings, and both had won statewide elections before. Weicker had lost in 1988, but he had enough statewide popularity remaining to mount a successful challenge. Lieberman was the incumbent in 2006, and enjoyed support from Republicans, conservative Democrats, and independents. Both men had established fundraising systems, and neither had cash flow problems.
Secondly, neither man was a single-issue candidate. In fact, Lieberman successfully painted his opponent, Ned Lamont, as a single-issue liberal.
Third, both entered the campaign well before the conventions, building up plenty of support and cash for a run.
Jonathan Pelto has none of these advantages. It is still possible that he can win, but his challenge is going to be much, much greater than Weicker’s or Lieberman’s. It may not be doable at all — in which case, why is he running again?
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.