Elisha Page/Argus Leader/AP
Independent US Senate candidate Larry Pressler, left, at a debate Thursday night in Vermillion, S.D. Next to him are Republican candidate Mike Rounds, center, and Democratic candidate Rick Weiland.

Election 2014: Rise of independents scrambles the math

Kansas, South Dakota, Alaska, and Maine all feature major independent candidates in statewide races, wreaking havoc with the usual political order. American voters are also moving away from the two main parties. 

Independents are on the rise in the 2014 election – both as candidates and voters – and in some states, the impact could be profound.

The starkest example is in deep-red Kansas, where independent Senate candidate Greg Orman threatens to unseat three-term incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R), in a race with no Democrat. A victory by Mr. Orman could cost Republicans’ their goal of retaking the Senate. The race is a tossup.

In conservative South Dakota, the rise of independent Larry Pressler – a former Republican senator – threw a monkey wrench into the Republican Senate nominee’s easy path to victory. Former Gov. Mike Rounds (R), was cruising to election until Mr. Pressler started picking up steam in the three-way battle. Mr. Rounds has recovered, but not before some anxious moments.

And in another strange one, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) faces an independent with the Democratic nominee as his running mate – and former Gov. Sarah Palin (R) is backing the independent, former Valdez mayor Bill Walker. Private polling shows a close race.

Maine has a more classic three-way governor’s race going, with Gov. Paul LePage (R) facing Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler. The latest poll, by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, shows Governor LePage and Congressman Michaud tied at 40 percent and Mr. Cutler at 17 percent.

Then there are Louisiana and Georgia, where a third-party – or tea party – candidate could force a runoff after Election Day in December or, in the case of the Georgia Senate race, in January.

Next come the voters themselves. For the past decade, Americans have been abandoning the two major parties in growing numbers and identifying as independent. In its latest analysis of the US electorate, Gallup found that 42 percent of Americans self-identify as independent – the highest number Gallup has found since it began interviewing people by telephone 25 years ago.  Only 25 percent of Americans call themselves Republican and 31 percent identify as Democrats, Gallup found.

“Both parties are in the dumpster with Americans,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “At the rate we’re going, by 2016 the two dirtiest words in political language are going to be Republican and Democrat.”

All of the above may give heart to Americans who are tired of politics as usual – especially the partisan gridlock in Washington – and welcome what appears to be a burst of outside-the-political-box thinking. But there’s less there than meets the eye.

Most “independent” American voters lean philosophically toward one of the major parties, and end up voting either Republican or Democratic. The strongest third-party presence in the US is the Libertarians. In a number of races, Libertarian candidates are polling in the mid to high single digits – and threatening to throw those races to Democrats, or at least that’s the Republican fear.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian-leaning Republican with tea party backing, has been an emissary to libertarian voters on behalf of the US Chamber of Commerce – a group that’s about as mainstream GOP as it gets. 

Senator Paul has either appeared in Chamber ads or planned visits to a number of Senate battleground states, such as North Carolina, Alaska, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and New Hampshire. (In Iowa, another Senate battleground, Libertarian candidate Doug Butzier died in a small-plane crash on Oct. 13.)

The  Koch brothers-financed American Future Fund is coming at the North Carolina Senate race from a different angle – running ads in support of Libertarian candidate (and pizza delivery man) Sean Haugh.  The slogan is “more weed, less war,” an apparent bid for younger, Democratic voters.

That race is a tossup between incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R). Mr. Haugh is polling at almost 6 percent, and thus his votes could swing the race.

Republican-leaning Georgia features two close major races. For Senate, Democrat Michelle Nunn is hanging tough against Republican David Perdue for an open seat that is currently in Republican hands. Votes that go to Libertarian Amanda Swafford instead of one of the major-party candidates could swing that race. If no one gets a majority on Election Day, the race goes to a runoff on Jan. 6.

The Georgia governor’s race is also a tossup. Gov. Nathan Deal (R) faces Democrat Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. A Libertarian, Andrew Hunt, also threatens to hold the top vote-getter under 50 percent. If that happens, there will be a runoff on Dec. 2.

Louisiana also could be heading for a runoff – though it’s the tea party candidate in the Senate election who is the main “third party” contender. Louisiana doesn’t have primaries; all candidates run on Election Day, and then if no one gets a majority, there’s a runoff between the top two finishers on Dec. 6.

Between Louisiana and Georgia, control of the Senate may not be decided until well after Nov. 4. The Republicans need to net six seats to win a majority.

Another unknown is which party Orman of Kansas would caucus with in the Senate if he defeats Senator Roberts.  If elected, Orman would join Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the upper chamber’s little “independents” caucus.

“That’s a good number, especially in a closely divided Senate,” says Ron Rapoport, a political scientist and expert on third parties at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va.

Senator Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, would stick with the Democrats. But Senator King, who currently caucuses with the Democrats, may be up for grabs, as Orman would be, analysts say.  Orman has worked hard to insist he has no ties to either party, though Roberts and the Republicans are trying to brand him as a Democrat.

Whether the American public’s growing disillusionment with Democrats and Republicans could eventually give way to a competitive third party remains in doubt.

“My view on third parties is, you really need a charismatic figure,” says Professor Rapoport. “You need an issue agenda that is distinctive. Ross Perot epitomizes that.”

Mr. Perot, from the populist Reform Party, achieved that in the 1990s. He won 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996.

But in 2012, when the group Americans Elect raised millions of dollars to recruit a centrist presidential candidate, no one stepped forward to run.

 “When someone says, ‘I want to be a moderate third party candidate,’ there’s no resonance,” says Rapoport. 

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