DENVER — In a Denver co-working space between a brewpub and a shop serving the Hawaiian raw fish salad called poke, independent candidates and possible contenders for U.S. Senate and governorships recently plotted how to pry loose Republicans’ and Democrats’ grip on U.S. politics.
Terry Hayes, Maine’s treasurer and a gubernatorial candidate, left the Democratic Party over its domination by teachers’ unions. Craig O’Dear, a Kansas City lawyer exploring a challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, was active in the GOP but became disillusioned with both parties. Bob Krist decided to run for Nebraska governor as an independent because Republican activists and the GOP incumbent injected partisanship into the state’s nonpartisan Legislature.
Following this week’s government shutdown and the 2016 election, in which both parties nominated historically unpopular candidates, there’s new energy in the movement to reclaim the political center.
Groups report surging interest and are targeting statehouses and Senate races, raising money to protect a bipartisan U.S. House of Representatives bloc and laying groundwork for a 2020 independent presidential bid.
“I look around and see a bunch of other ships in the water, rowing in the same direction,” said Charlie Wheelan, a Dartmouth College political scientist who founded The Centrist Project, which hosted December’s Denver meeting.
The two major parties are hemorrhaging members and more voters identify as independent than as Democratic or Republican, according to the Washington D.C.-based Pew Research Center, which measures public opinion. Acrimony between Democrats and Republicans is great enough that moderates in the two parties only reached a deal to keep government open on Monday, two days after it had closed — and that deal expires in two weeks.
But, while voters express disgust with the parties, they’ve never embraced them more tightly.
Every 2016 U.S. Senate race was won by the party that won that state’s presidential vote — for the first time in U.S. history.
Polls show the more involved people are in politics, the more likely they hold extreme ideological views.
“We’re just seeing the two coalitions move farther and farther apart,” said Jocelyn Kiley, the Pew center’s associate research director. “There are actually fewer people now who hold a mix of liberal and conservative views.”
The anti-partisan groups acknowledge they’re fighting powerful trends but say the alternative is accepting that U.S. politics will just get worse.
The eight-year-old No Labels group is launching a SuperPAC to defend members of its Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of House Republicans and Democrats who started meeting last summer in hopes of getting bipartisan legislation through a Congress whose Republican leaders pushed a GOP-only tax bill and last year’s unsuccessful health bill.
Executive Director Nancy Jacobson said there must be muscle and money behind good government preaching.
“If you can’t match the political forces of the left and right, you’ll never have a center,” Jacobson said.
The caucus has delved into health care, infrastructure and immigration. Co-chairs, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-New Jersey, and Rep. Tom Reed, R-New York, are optimistic about bipartisan legislation because the Senate has already used all its opportunities for 51-vote, party-line legislation.
“You’ve got a lot of governing that can get done,” Reed said.
The Serve America Movement based itself in Colorado partly because the state is evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. It’s surveying people in Kansas — a conservative =state with a high number of unaffiliated voters — to determine what they want in an independent presidential candidate.
“We’re building an infrastructure for whatever candidate rises,” said chief executive officer Sarah Lenti.
The Centrist Project — which just renamed itself Unite America — has now moved to an office for the 2018 elections, only a few miles from the Serve America Movement.
The group was drawn by Colorado’s evenly-divided state legislature. Democrats control the state House, but Republicans hold the Senate by a single vote. The group plans to field several nonpartisan state senate candidates, hoping to elect a bloc that can control policy, and has announced challengers to three Democrats and one Republican.
Unite America wants to get involved in another half-a-dozen or so state races this year elsewhere with a potential $3 million bankroll. Along with Hayes and Krist, the group is backing businessman Greg Orman, who announced Wednesday a nonpartisan bid for Kansas governor.
Neal Simon, a Baltimore businessman, is exploring a nonpartisan run against Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin in Maryland. Unite America is also recruiting in Texas and Wyoming Senate races.
Independent candidacies can create electoral surprises. The last open Maine gubernatorial race with a prominent nonpartisan candidate, in 2010, led to the election of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a Trump precursor. In Kansas, Democrats fear Orman could split the gubernatorial vote and elect Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who chaired Trump’s disbanded voter fraud commission.
Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the main impact of independents is usually to throw an election to a major party.
The GOP has taken partisanship to such an extreme that the only way to stop it is for the party to lose control of Congress, he said.
“In the short run,” Ornstein said of Republicans alienated by the GOP, “those voters have to vote for Democrats.”
That theory gained little traction around the conference table in Denver. “If a party can’t nominate a candidate who can win in a multicandidate race, why is that on me?” Hayes said.