Independent Lawmakers Make Case for Political Centrism
Imagine a U.S. Senate with five or six independent members, which would deny both major political parties an outright majority and give said coalition a large amount of power. Although seemingly impossible, especially in an era of unprecedented polarization, some suggest that this so-called “fulcrum strategy” could have a major impact on next year’s elections.
“This isn’t a coincidence – there is something happening here,” said Centrist Project Executive Director Nick Troiano, speaking both about a growing independent movement and the four independent elected officials attending a National Press Club news conference Wednesday. Billed as “Independents Day,” the event pointed to examples of third-party success that – as Troiano told RCP in April – can actually make a difference rather than just “make a bunch of noise.”
Troiano said independents in the United States should take heart from the recent French elections that made Emmanuel Macron president. He ran under the banner of Republic on the March, a recently formed centrist coalition that also secured an outright majority of seats in the National Assembly.
U.S. presidential politics is a higher hurdle, as Troiano acknowledged. Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin received only 0.4 percent of the popular vote. This is one reason the Centrist Project is focusing on the Senate. Another is that moderate activists see kindred spirits in senators such as Democrats Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp and Republicans Susan Collins and Ben Sasse, who have expressed a desire to move closer to the center of the partisan political spectrum if some sort of infrastructure existed to accommodate them.
“This is a better fit for who I am,” said Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, whose lieutenant governor and former Democratic challenger, Byron Mallott, joined him on a “Unity Ticket” in the final months of the campaign. Walker (in photo above) said flatly that his independent status allowed him to “represent all 730,000 Alaskans equally.”
Alaska State Rep. Jason Grenn described a last-minute decision to quit his job to run for office as an independent after concluding that the two-party rivalry wasn’t conducive to problem solving. Running as an independent literally required knocking on the door of every house in his district, said Grenn. His pitch was simple: “I don’t wear any hat; I’m just an Alaskan.”
The fulcrum strategy probably makes more sense at the state level, Centrist Project leaders believe. And it works best in states like Alaska and Maine – home to Angus King, the U.S. Senate’s only true independent – with a rich independent tradition. Last year, for the first time in more than a quarter century, control of the Alaska statehouse was taken from the GOP and put in the hands of a bipartisan governing majority made up of moderate Republicans and the House Democratic caucus. Walker and Grenn said the move toward centrism has been crucial in combatting the state’s historic budget deficits.
A similar story is unfolding in Maine, where the election of two independent state representatives in 2016 spurred three incumbent representatives to drop their respective party affiliations, stripping both major parties of an outright majority.
“The gap between parties is more self-induced than we realize,” said independent Maine Rep. Owen Casas, who believes his political freedom has helped him serve as a liaison between state Democrats and Republicans and move along important legislation.
The session ended with an acknowledgment of the steep barriers to entry for independent politicians, including lack of a support system and a perception in the media and the political donor community that the chances of winning state and national elections are exceedingly small. In addition, Troiano said, Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much except making it difficult for others to run against them.
Despite the roadblocks, he suggested that the number of independent politicians could begin to grow exponentially instead of linearly. From the bipartisan 35-member Problem Solver Caucus in the House — to the fact that MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough officially left the Republican Party Tuesday — Troiano said it's obvious “the political environment is ripe for an alternative.”