Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Sept. 22, 2021

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Camden: Independent candidates fighting the election odds

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It’s a rare campaign season that doesn’t bring at least one complaint from a long-shot candidate who believes he or she deserves more coverage.

Such candidates often face severe funding limitations and poor name recognition, two conditions which usually go hand-in-hand. Sometimes they are members of one major political party running against an entrenched incumbent in a strongly partisan district. But more often they are independents or members of a third party, seeking to buck the establishment and give voters an alternative.

Case in point: Ted Cummings, an articulate and serious husband and father from Colbert, who operates a small ranch between shifts as a Steelworker at Kaiser Aluminum. He is also running as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 2016 for the seat occupied by four-term incumbent Democrat Patty Murray.

Cummings wrote after last week’s column discussed Republican Chris Vance’s plans to challenge Murray. This wasn’t an angry screed, and in a follow-up phone conversation Cummings was both thoughtful and amiable when discussing the fact that his campaign for the Senate is, at best, quixotic. But because this is a conversation political reporters have regularly with candidates, some of it warrants repeating here.

News coverage of a race doesn’t treat all candidates in the race equally, because it shouldn’t.

Any American citizen in Washington at least 30 years old can file next year for the U.S. Senate seat and appear on the ballot. The filing fee is 1 percent of the annual salary, or $1,700 — not exactly chump change, but not enough to signify a serious candidate by itself. Since 2000, the Senate race has averaged 11 candidates in the primary, including Mike The Mover, a Seattle businessman who shares his name with his company, and Goodspaceguy, who legally changed his name to emphasize his key issue, colonizing space.

Not absurd, just unlikely

That doesn’t really address Cummings, who is not a perennial candidate seeking attention for some business or pipe dream. His concerns about too much money in politics are shared by many people with incomes below George Soros or the Koch Brothers. “I get that I can be lumped in with a bunch of nuts,” he said. “I just have to try. If I get nowhere, I get nowhere. I’ll do what I can with the funds I have, and have people tell me why it’s so absurd.”

Actually, it’s not absurd, just highly unlikely. Since Washington statehood, no independent has won a statewide partisan office. We’ve sent a few Populists and Progressives to Congress, and Populists swept every executive office below governor in 1896. Since then, winners have had a D or R after their name.

Cummings argues that if there ever was a time the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the major parties provided an opening, this is it. He might be right, but the deck is stacked against him. The top-two primary, which the major parties fought against and still claim to hate, makes it all but impossible for an independent to make the general election. In the days of the old blanket primary, they could at least stick around for November after reaching a small threshold in the primary.

Although he plans a low-budget campaign, Cummings has registered with the Federal Elections Commission, an early test of a serious candidate. But the bigger test is filing paperwork with the state and paying the filing fee, which can’t happen until May.

After a good conversation with Cummings, we promised he would get some serious coverage of his issues if he files for Senate next May. Likely not equal to Murray and Vance, or whoever the leading GOP nominee will be, unless he begins to generate the kind of “buzz” that make him viable.

It’s admittedly a chicken-and-egg situation; one can’t get coverage without the buzz, and struggles for buzz without coverage. But a few candidates such as Ross Perot and John Anderson managed it on a national level. Anyone who begins to crack that nut on the state level, deserves, and will get, coverage.

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