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Monday, 2 November 2009

The Tipping Point for Third-Party Politics

In the first eighty years of its constitutional existence, the American Federal Government was controlled by no single party or even pair of parties. Some national elections boasted as many as five strong candidates for the same position. Gradually, though, one party consolidated a grip on power, to the point that only a single united party could hope to break it. This was the party of the Jacksonian Democrats, which by the end of this period was known as the Democratic Party. Opposition to it had by then pretty much coalesced around what had only a couple of election cycles earlier been not only a third party, but a minor one: the Republican Party. One or the other of these parties has dominated national politics ever since.

A crack appeared in this wall of national access when socialist Bernard Sanders attained to the House in 1991 as an independent--the first independent to be elected to Congress in forty years, half of which time Sanders had been trying to get into the Senate without having to go through a national party. He attained this goal in 2007, thanks to the help of the Democrats, who never mounted a serious challenge against him. In both elections, he won a seat being vacated by Jim Jeffords, who had always run as a Republican, but voted more like a Democrat. By the time he delivered his Senate seat to Sanders, he had already left the Republican Party in name as well as in deed.

So, until the last election cycle, "Independent" has been a euphemism for a person whose political ideals fall somewhat to the left of the line dividing the two ruling parties. That began to change when Joseph Lieberman had to leave his party to retain his Senate seat. But he still caucuses with the Democrats, as has every "Independent" for the past half century.

But a further change seems to be in the offing. Doug Hoffman, an accounting manager with no political experience, has pulled into the lead in a 3-way race for the New York seat being vacated by Republican Congressman John McHugh, the newly appointed Secretary of the Army. When Dede Scozzafava, one of the most liberal Republicans in the history of the New York State Assembly, got the nod from the Republican Party, ground-level support for her candidacy evaporated, and Doug Hoffman soon found himself the front runner, with even more popular support than Obama-endorsed Independent-turned-Democrat Bill Owens. Once Scozzafava found herself a distant third, she bowed out of the race. So far Owens, despite an unprecedented endorsement from Scozzafava herself, hasn't picked up any of her supporters; Hoffman already shot five points ahead in the polls, while the rest of Scozzafava's former supporters remain undecided--not a very influential place to be on the eve of the election. The Republican Party, which had not only failed to line up support for their candidate but saw such conservative heavyweights as former presidential running mate Sarah Palin speaking out in support of the front-runner, is now scrambling to adjust to the new reality of an Independent in Congress operating to the right of their own party.

This is a new reality, indeed. The Republican Party has shown itself so inept at picking a winning candidate, and with such a long history of drumming up support for legislators who ended up switching parties, that its role as one of two reigning parties is fast approaching obsolescence. It faces the same fate as the Whig Party, whose fortunes it overthrew in only two consecutive election cycles a century and a half ago. Whether the Conservative Party--or another of a large number of minor third parties presently in the mix--will end up taking its place, remains to be seen.

Update: As mentioned, the Republican candidate, seeing she could not take this seat herself, gave it to the Democrats rather than allowing a true independent to take it. Bill Owens won with 49 per cent of the vote; Dede, still on the ballot, herself still got six per cent, enough to deny Hoffman the victory.
But that's not all. Dede even tried to give up her own NY Assembly seat in favor of her Democrat opponent, but failed; now a Republican holds it.
It gets even crazier. In 2010, Hoffman was stupid enough to run, first as a Republican, then on a third-party ticket when he lost the Primary. He was able to keep Bill Owens down to only 47% of the vote this time.
In 2012, the North State voters showed once again that they weren't interested in being represented by a liberal Democrat:  for the third election in a row, Owens won with less than half the votes cast (although enough votes were disqualified to give him a bare majority), and then only by getting enough urban votes to offset losing eight of the twelve counties in his district. This time, Hoffman sat out the race, and Green Party candidate Donald Hassig got to be the spoiler.

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