https://player.megaphone.fm/POL6726045719?The independents are banding together.
That is, 13 independent candidates who feel they don’t fit in the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump are joining forces with a few Democrats who are planning runs for governor and Senate in 2018. The plan is to create shared infrastructure and funding for a slate of campaigns around the country, in the hopes of making this more than the latest go-nowhere whining about how awful the two-party system is.
But with an historically unpopular Republican president in the White House and a Democratic Party in epic disarray, they think this is actually their moment.
On Friday, leaning hard into the symbolism of declaring their independence, the group—put together by the Centrist Project, founded by Charles Wheelan, an academic at Dartmouth—will meet at the Union League in downtown Philadelphia for a weekend-long mini-convention. They’ll get briefings on campaign mechanics and polling. They’ll get a rundown on potential staff hires and interested donors. A member of En Marche, French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, will do a briefing on how a party that didn’t exist a year ago won the presidency and now a majority in the National Assembly. Two prominent Never-Trumpers—Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, and Reed Galen, who worked on both Bush campaigns and was John McCain’s 2008 deputy campaign manager—will weigh in with advice.
The model, they hope: Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, a lifelong Republican who quit the party two months before the 2014 election, picked a Democrat as his lieutenant governor/running mate, and squeaked out a win against the Republican incumbent. Walker recently announced he’s running for re-election, and says he never looked back at his decision to leave the GOP—and that was before Trump split the party with a working-class message and heretical stances on entitlement programs, trade and basic decorum.
Being an independent has its advantages, Walker says.
“If a candidate comes up and says, ‘I’m a Republican, or ‘I’m a Democrat,’ people know within probably 70 percent of where they stand. With an independent, it’s like, ‘OK, tell me about yourself,’” Walker told me, in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. But, he allows, “those that are running as independent have to work a little harder. We have to be a little bit more creative and figure out how to get it done.”
Terry Hayes, Maine’s state treasurer, who’s already declared she’s running for governor, will be in Philadelphia, getting tips. So will Greg Orman, who fell short in an independent bid against Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014 and is expected to run for governor next year, as well as Evan McMullin, the former Republican House aide who’s expected to follow his independent run for president last year with a Senate run in Utah against Orrin Hatch.
Joel Searby, the senior strategist for the Centrist Project, helped recruit several of the candidates. Others attending who are just shy of declaring, he says, include two former Navy SEALs, three potential self-funders coming out of financial services who’ve floated spending a million each of their own money (one has floated spending up to $5 million, he says), a former state party chair, a former big city mayor and a former congressman.
“They’re committed to running as independents for the reasons of disrupting and changing the political system, not because they’re on the fringe,” Searby says. “When they start to see that there is not only a viable plan—a business plan, a fundraising plan, but also a serious network of people—that’s when you can see the light bulbs go off.”
There are plans for a centrist state legislator slate in Colorado, to build off the handful of already affiliated state legislators, like Iowa State Sen. David Johnson, who represents the third most Republican district in the state, but after 17 years as a GOP official and endorsing Carly Fiorina last year, announced that Trump had chased him out of the party. Now, he rails against his old party for having no answers for why tax cuts don’t actually do a better job of spurring economic growth, or for why the local rivers and lakes keep getting dirtier.
Walker has his own list of complaints with the Republican Party. He first ran for governor in 2010 as a Republican out of frustration, he says, with the constratints on energy development he was dealing with as a lawyer in private practice. But he likes what is coming out of the Trump White House on energy now, even as he’s doing his own state-level work toward the Paris accords. And as for people who question climate change, from his perch in Alaska, he says, “it’s real because we’re seeing it”—just look at the entire villages the state has had to pick up and move.
The independents are sensitive to becoming spoilers, throwing races without getting into office to make changes—precisely what Dowd thinks might have happened if he’d gotten into the race next year against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, as some wanted him to. “The greatest barrier right now to this is not money, not tactics. The greatest barrier is psychological,” Dowd says. “If you can break that by winning some races, then I think the media starts covering it more.”
Searby has a memo he circulates to statewide recruits, pushing them on the size and wealth of their personal networks, and hiring general consultants to help them build campaign plans. He has a growing Google spreadsheet of staffers who are ready to sign on as managers, finance directors, and another of national donors he thinks will be open to supporting individual campaigns, in addition to helping them meet their $10 million goal for the 501c3, 501c4, super PAC and corporation they’ve already set up in their “mothership model.”
The Centrist Project has already raised $750,000 for initial operating expenses, and has started conversations with people like Michael Slaby, chief technology officer of the 2008 Obama campaign, about building digital resources.
They’re convinced technology is the answer, that it’s enabled a different kind of politics to more easily puncture the public consciousness. But Macron’s success in France was about the collapse of existing parties around and the creation of a new one, not a loose affiliation of people who didn’t like existing parties but were really good on social media and email. They like to talk about a “Fulcrum Strategy” of having a few members in the Senate who could swing close votes—a tantalizing possibility in the wake of Obamacare repeal failing by a single vote—but some offer a confused vision that imagines Bernie Sanders joining with centrists just because he’s an independent, rather than a perhaps more realistic scenario in which a centrist bloc attracts people like Maine’s Angus King and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski to force compromises.
Galen, who unregistered as a Republican after Trump won the nomination, argued that the chaos and the mess in Congress of the president’s first six months have opened the window for independents even more than it was in November. “The American electorate keeps beating Washington over the head with a frying pan and saying, ‘We don’t like what you’re doing!’ But they keep doing it anyway,” Galen says.
Walker, meanwhile, has been dealing with the reality of being in office. He’s fought with the legislature in Juneau over the budget. He’s struggled with plummeting oil prices. He’s managed a contorted relationship with Sarah Palin—she endorsed him over her former lieutenant governor, who’d become governor when she quit abruptly, but they clearly don’t get along (“I was looking for results and not just attention,” Walker said).
Every version of every argument over the viability of independents cites declining major party registration among young people, the growing suspicion of institutions—and, increasingly, Trump. But the results have been paltry. Last year, a dozen unaffiliated candidates ran in Alaska, double previous cycles—only two were elected to the state house of representatives. Testament, perhaps, to the enduring power of the two major parties, however unpopular they might be.
But Walker thinks he’s helped show other independents around the country how it can be done. “I think they may have seen the path, perhaps that they don’t have to necessarily fit into a particular box,” he says. “They can just be themselves and get elected.”