A Bad Time to Be an Independent.
Oregon's incumbent govenor is the 47th most popular in the country, and yet he still looked good in his re-election bid against his GOP opponent, who was inspiring no love among moderates or conservatives. Enter Ben Westlund, a moderate-Republican-turned-Independent who is running to the left of the Democratic incumbent. Seems like a good opportunity to steal a victory, yeah? Westlund thinks so; here's how he described the political landscape:
Two of the conditions are constant in Oregon: One, you have to have a high voter turnout. Two, you have to have a high percent of independent registered voters. The fastest growing segment of the Oregon electorate is independent. We're now like second or third highest independent registration in the country.Although he's going for a particularly rosy interpretation of factors, I don't see anything substantially wrong with his analysis. But despite all the factors arrayed in his favor, there is one trump card that I think will inevitably doom his campaign--and any outsider running against government this year. The GOP have successfully drained the life out of politics for most people, so while there's a lot of outrage, there's no energy for Westlund to tap in to.
Then you have to have a strong climate for change, right track/ wrong track. As you can well imagine Oregon's numbers are some of the highest wrong track numbers ever....
Then you have to have a strong, centrist candidate.
When you have all 5 of those conditions in place then independent candidates for governor have won 4 out of the last 7 or 5 out of the last 8, depending upon how you want to slice it.
It looks a little different for each party, but they all suffer from political toxicity, poisoned by the GOP.
To Republicans, the particular poison is the unpardonable sin of incompetence. GOP politicians have run for 26 years under the banner of the efficiency doctrine: gubmint bad, slick businesstypes like us who will drown it in a bathtub good. Salt that with a little God--we'll save you from the dark evil of modernity--and you have a generation-long winning prescription.
But the government is bigger than ever, and now it runs like a '76 Gremlin. Republicans don't mind if their leaders walk away from office with bags stuffed with cash (profit being a wholesome Republican motive). But getting American kids killed in Iraq for no purpose, watching Katrina swallow Louisiana, and watching their leaders sneaking away with bags filled with cash--it's too much. In business, you have to perform, and the only thing the modern GOP can accomplish is winning elections. Plus they haven't gotten around to stoning the gays.
So Republicans, dutifully drinking the elixir of bad government, now have nowhere to turn. A former GOP candidate who says he's got something different to peddle--like Westlund--just isn't going to seal the deal. Republicans aren't in a buying mood.
To Democrats, the GOP are exactly what they expected--viscious, greedy incompetents. But the incessant Swift Boating of Democrats has left the party faithful perfectly distrustful of anyone who might once have associated with these sleazeballs. Nationally, we see this playing out in Operation Lieberman, where Dems are trying to purify the party of any Bushie taint.
In Oregon, we have a long history of progressive Republicans, and our most beloved politician, Governor Tom McCall, was a Republican. Westlund is definitely playing his tune. But the past fifteen years are more in Dems' minds than the fairy tales of good Republicans past. Westlund's political experience is all in the Oregon House, which the majority GOP have run like Tom DeLay. (And state legislators--of either party--are only marginally more popular than the ebola virus right now.) To Dems, the House GOP is notable mostly for the criminal embezzlement of Dan Doyle and the almost-criminal thuggery of the Speaker of the House, Karen Minnis, whom Dems have now mounted a "Depose the Queen" campaign to oust the Speaker, may find it a fair stretch to jump ship to a man who was one of her posse as recently as last year.
And what about independents? Westlund is part of a divided field (the Dem, the Republican, a Green, and a minor-party candidate who was a local TV personality in Portland) and could hope for victory with as little as 35-40% of the vote if the election played out like he describes.
Voters who identify themselves as something other than Dem or GOP, 25% of Oregon's electorate, might conceivably send him to victory along with small minorities of split votes from the major parties, right? In theory, that might be true, but with the Green and Constitution parties likely to draw off some votes, Westlund needs to peel off more Dems and Republicans. And of those indies who won't vote for other minor candidates, will they vote for Westlund? My guess is that he's got some work to do--with his history as a major party politician, and his platform, to unite the two major parties, he's not really running on traditional independent footing. He's no Jesse Ventura.
(There's the issue of his even making the ballot, which now looks like a dubious prospect at best. If the indies are so delighted to have him running, why has he only collected 6,800 signatures in the past several weeks?)
Everything has costs. For politics, one of the more serious costs of the GOP ascendency has been bitter cyncism among voters. That's a bad thing for everyone, but especially for indies.
[Update: Carla has the update on the Westlund campaign's effort to get signatures. Shorter word: much talk, little walk. We'll see.]