By Ed Gogek
March 25, 2023
There are opportunities: Incumbents in 2 congressional races and candidates in 15 legislative district races effectively had no competition.
America’s polarized politics creates an opening for a centrist third party, such as the Forward Party founded by former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
But third parties almost never succeed.
The biggest problem is that their candidates are usually spoilers. They split the vote with whomever they’re most similar and help elect extreme candidates whom most people don’t want. That’s how combative right-winger Paul LePage won the governorship in Maine with only 38% of the vote.
The second reason they fail is that voting third party is seen as a wasted vote.
Third party would provide alternatives to partisan incumbents
A centrist party can overcome these problems, but the solution is counterintuitive. That is to run only in noncompetitive districts where voter registration is so lopsided that the minority party has almost no chance, and the majority party routinely wins by a landslide.
So, a centrist third party would not run candidates for statewide offices in evenly divided places like Arizona, but would against incumbents in party-safe districts like U.S. Reps. Raul Grijalva in Congressional District 7 and Paul Gosar in CD 9.
It sounds backwards. These sound like the hardest races to win. However, districts dominated by one party have incumbents who never had to worry about a general election, only the primary.
By running in what have been noncompetitive districts, centrists would be running against the most far left and far right candidates. This would give voters a choice, not between the two parties, but between a more extreme candidate and a centrist.
It would give moderate voters a motivation to turn out
Moderate Republicans and Democrats who would never, ever, ever vote for “that other party” might be open to a reasonable centrist, and so some of these races would become competitive.
To compete in lopsided districts, centrists would need to convince the minority party not to run their own candidates. Last year, in Arizona, incumbents of two congressional districts and legislature candidates in seven Senate districts and nine House districts effectively ran unopposed.
A centrist third party would have given voters in those districts a real choice, and maybe offered real competition.
In other noncompetitive districts, centrists could try to convince the minority party not to run its own candidates. This has happened. Last year, Democrats ran no one in the Utah Senate race and instead endorsed the anti-Trump conservative Evan McMullin.
Recent U.S. Senate race in Utah an encouraging sign
However, minority parties are rarely that accommodating, and often have no control over candidates. In the 2006 race for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut, the Republican Party realized their own candidate had no chance, but he refused to drop out.
So the Republicans endorsed independent Joe Lieberman and contributed heavily to his campaign. Lieberman defeated the progressive Democratic candidate Ned Lamont.
In lopsided districts, voting third party would be less of a wasted vote. For example, independent Evan McMullin lost the 2022 Utah Senate race, but he held Republican Sen. Mike Lee to only 53% of the vote. Six years earlier, running against a Democrat, Mike Lee won a whopping 68% of the vote.
Voting Democratic for statewide candidates in Utah usually seems futile, but McMullin had a real chance of winning. This would be true in all the currently noncompetitive districts; voting for a centrist third party candidate would feel less like a wasted vote than with our current system.
The idea is to help elect centrists, not play role of spoiler
Past third-party candidates such as Ralph Nader, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson denied being spoilers – a condescending attitude toward voters who can see the obvious. A third party that refuses to spoil competitive races would get a reputation for putting the country’s needs ahead of its own.
To be successful, the third party would only need a few wins. Since the defeated candidates would be from the far left and right, our politics would become more moderate and cooperative, and firebrand politicians would learn that lopsided districts no longer protect them.
Ninety percent of congressional districts – along with most Senate and state legislative races – have such one-sided voter registration that they are already noncompetitive, so a third party could field candidates in most races. And each win would pull our country away from the fringes and back toward the center.
Photo by Philip Goldsberry on Unsplash