Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Will Democrats’ Third-Party Scenario Pay Off?

By Stuart Rothenberg

An unusual number of Democratic candidates running this cycle are basing their victory scenarios on the existence of Independent or third-party candidates in their races. Are their hopes reasonable or are they merely grasping at straws?

Certainly there are examples of third-party candidates who had no chance of winning siphoning off enough votes from one major-party nominee to alter the outcome of an election.

Last cycle, in Ohio’s 15th district, anti-abortion conservative Don Eckhart drew almost 13,000 votes, the majority of which might well have gone to GOP nominee Steve Stivers. That almost certainly cost the Republican the election, as Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy won by less than 1 point.

But more often than not, Independents and third-party candidates see their support evaporate as Election Day approaches, as voters realize that a vote for an also-ran is a wasted vote.

At least 10 Democratic hopefuls now seem to be counting on Independent candidates attracting enough votes to allow the Democrats to win with less than 50 percent of the total vote. The list includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, Colorado Rep. Betsy Markey, Michigan Rep. Mark Schauer, Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, Ohio Rep. Zack Space, Virginia Reps. Tom Perriello and Glenn Nye, Ohio’s Kilroy, and Pennsylvania 15th district challenger John Callahan.

In Nevada, even Democrats acknowledge that it will be difficult for Reid to reach 50 percent in November. But they note that the state’s “none of the above” option for voters, combined with a number of Independent candidates, enhance Reid’s chances by dividing the anti-Reid vote.

Most of the attention has gone to Tea Party nominee Scott Ashjian, but Independent American Party nominee Tim Fasano is also on the ballot. Both candidates (and both parties) espouse extremely conservative views, including support for lower taxes and smaller government. Any votes they get presumably would come from Republican Sharron Angle.

But Angle is so conservative and plugged in to the tea party movement that it is difficult to believe that she will lose much support to the two ultra-conservatives, and most of the voters who end up supporting Ashjian and Fasano probably wouldn’t support a major-party nominee anyway. Neither Ashjian nor Fasano filed a first-quarter Federal Election Commission report.

Nevada’s Independent American Party has also nominated a candidate in the state’s 3rd district, Scott Narter. Narter drew 4.6 percent of the vote in a 2004 Clark County Commission race. He hasn’t filed an FEC report, and he doesn’t have a campaign website. But if he’s on the ballot, he’ll get some votes.

In Ohio, Stivers is back for another shot at Kilroy, who won her seat with only 46 percent because third-party nominees drew almost a combined 9 percent.

The Libertarians are again running a candidate (who doesn’t yet have a website or even a photograph on the Ohio Libertarian Party’s website), while the Constitution Party nomination went to David Ryon (who beat a primary opponent 171 votes to 157 votes).

If Ryon gets the same vote that Eckhart did last time, he could once again throw the election to Kilroy. But that looks unlikely.

Not only is the political environment very different, but Kilroy has voted with her party consistently on controversial issues, making her a much easier target this time. Moreover, unlike 2008, Stivers has been declared a “preferred” candidate by the Ohio Right to Life political action committee.

While not a full “endorsement,” “preferred” status indicates, according to the Ohio Right to Life PAC’s website, that the group “believes that the election of that candidate’s opponent would be clearly more detrimental to Ohio Right to Life’s mission and the pro-life movement.”

The designation should help Stivers stem some defections to Ryon, limiting the damage from his right.

Elsewhere, Pennsylvania challenger Callahan is counting on Libertarian Jake Towne getting on the ballot to siphon votes away from Rep. Charlie Dent, who is widely regarded as one of the more moderate Republicans left in the House.

In Michigan, Democrats believe that tea party activist Scott Aughney, running as a U.S. Taxpayer’s Party (known as the Constitution Party outside Michigan) candidate, can draw votes that otherwise might go to Schauer’s eventual GOP opponent.

In Virginia’s 2nd district, retired Adm. Kenny Golden, a former Virginia Beach GOP chairman, is running as an Independent, possibly helping Nye. But Golden’s prospects are uncertain, since his campaign was $6,500 in the red as of May 19.

Democrats in the state’s 5th district hope that a well-funded conservative Independent joins conservative Jeffrey Clark on the ballot to draw votes away from the GOP nominee, state Sen. Robert Hurt.

Democratic insiders also hope that American Constitution Party nominee Doug Aden and Unity Party candidate Mike Nelson draw votes in Colordao’s 4th district that might otherwise go to Markey’s Republican challenger, state Rep. Corey Gardner. Gardner, however, remains the favorite in that race.

And in Ohio, Space recently mailed a letter to both his Republican and Constitution Party opponents inviting them to debate, an obvious attempt to turn his race into a three-way contest featuring two conservatives rather than a one-on-one matchup against a Republican.

Finally, in one of the stranger races this cycle, Florida’s Grayson seems to be hoping that Tea Party candidate Peg Dunmire can help divide his opposition and allow him to win another term.

Dunmire first entered the 8th district race as a Republican, but she amended her statement of organization on April 15 to file as a Tea Party candidate.

While her March 31 FEC report shows $44,000 raised, about $25,000 was from the candidate while $7,500 came from the Florida Tea Party. On June 1, the FEC sent a letter to the Dunmire campaign raising questions about whether the Tea Party contribution was permissible and citing numerous problems with the campaign’s fundraising report.

In short, it’s not clear whether Dunmire will be relevant when November rolls around. Republicans, obviously, would like to make certain that she isn’t, while Democrats — and Grayson — have an interest in keeping her campaign afloat.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on July 6, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.