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OP-ED | Winning As An Independent Candidate Is Possible, But . . .

by Susan Bigelow | May 23, 2014 8:00am
(12) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Election 2014, Opinion

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.

Susan Bigelow

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.

Susan Bigelow

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.

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(12) Comments

posted by: LongJohn47 | May 23, 2014  5:05pm

As I’ve said elsewhere, Pelto is a spoiler, not a serious contender for the Governorship.  He knows it, we all know it. 

We’re watching a mixture of passion and ego, not too dissimilar from Ross Perot.  That race ended with a Bill Clinton victory, maybe the only President in modern times who won with only 41% of the popular vote.

In France (OMG, does he expect this comment to be taken seriously?), they have a two stage election where fringe candidates abound and everyone gets to “send a message” in the first vote. 

Then the two highest first round vote getters face off in the real election, and the winner must (by definition) get more that half the vote. 

This strikes me as fair and sensible, kind of like letting a wild card team into the playoffs but expecting the finals to be fought by those who have demonstrated excellence over the entire season.

posted by: shinningstars122 | May 23, 2014  7:30pm

shinningstars122

Great piece Susan on relating CT past with
“independent” candiates.

It might be more appropriate to refer to them as the ” opportunist ”
party.

I do not know much about Pelto but honestly one person creating the “Education Democracy party” is not an independent party it is simple a way to get into the race.

You are absolutely right as getting only 10% will never do it so maybe an alliance with the Greens or Working Families?

posted by: Susan Bigelow | May 24, 2014  8:51pm

LongJohn47,

The two-stage election process is actually a good idea. California is experimenting with this now—the “top two” from an open primary round go on to the final election. I’d be very interested to see that here.

posted by: RogueReporterCT | May 24, 2014  8:58pm

RogueReporterCT

Thanks for bringing up Lieberman, definitely an invisible half-elephant in the room. I credit him with the incredibly thick attitude of “don’t bother trying” that people have been sending Pelto’s way. I mean, the people spoke up about the war, nominated someone else, and at the end of the day, nothing changed. Thanks for the lesson in learned hopelessness, Joe.

But this might be the one, the time for Connecticans to shrug it off, get back in the game and prove that they are still revolutionary. Anyone? (Crickets)

Okay, fine. Here’s the score. Pelto is running because he believes in public schools under local control. All Malloy has to do to make this all go away is to just say “no” to Bill Gates’ reform money and agenda, and then we can all have our summer. I suspect it will take Gates a lot longer to come up with Common Core 2.0, what with licking his billionaire wounds and all. It will be like Voldemort 2.0, only puffier. LOL.

posted by: LongJohn47 | May 24, 2014  9:40pm

BTW, the Green Party doesn’t have its own line on the ballot, so getting their endorsement doesn’t help Pelto, and the Working Families Party is highly unlikely to give him their endorsement.

posted by: LongJohn47 | May 25, 2014  7:45pm

Susan - Louisiana already has a version of this now, and California is experimenting with truly open primaries.

posted by: PaulBass | May 26, 2014  11:43am

That’s some map from the 1990 election! Wow.

posted by: Common Sense | May 26, 2014  2:12pm

Jonathan Pelto can’t be considered to be a long shot—but is worth a vote instead of wasting it on a proven loser in Gov. Dannel Malloy.

posted by: CT Jim | May 28, 2014  10:30am

Pelto is not really a serious contender and if he does start to raise money I’d love to see who donates to him. He’s bitter because he didn’t get a job period and he’s vengeful. So what who cares. He claims to be Mr Progressive but his work with Rowland and Rell tells me he’s with who ever is writing the check. He’s a guy who likes to look at himself in the mirror because everybody else sees right thru him.

posted by: Common Sense | May 28, 2014  3:29pm

CT Jim:  You don’t like Republicans as a die-hard Democrat—so you associate Pelto with Republicans to write him off.  Clever but no cigar.

posted by: CT Jim | May 29, 2014  8:51am

Common Sense, lol so who are you portraying today??? Are you the independent you BS everybody about or are you the dyed in the wool Republican that still has the W sticker on the back of his volvo??? Stop portraying yourself as something your not.

posted by: Common Sense | May 29, 2014  2:04pm

CT Jim:  You are too angry when you ref=r to my views as BS. Try again after you have taken your Prozac.