Independents Making Noise on Gubernatorial Scene

Independents this year are looking to follow in the foot steps of former governor Jesse Ventura in a season when both parties are less popular
Joyce Nalthcayan, Getty Images
Independents this year are looking to follow in the footsteps of former governor Jesse Ventura in a season when both parties are less popular.
This would seem an ideal time for candidates from outside the two-party system to run for governor. And a few of them are attracting some legitimate attention.

In this volatile election year, third-party and independent candidates are making serious bids for governor in a diverse array of states. Most of them won't get many votes, but a fair number stand to influence the results and it's possible that at least one may make it into office.

In Rhode Island alone, a handful of independents are running. The most prominent one is former U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, who served in Congress as a moderate Republican until his defeat in 2006. Polling has showed Chafee either leading the race for governor or modestly trailing Democratic nominee Frank Caprio.

In Massachusetts, state Treasurer Tim Cahill broke with his Democratic roots to run as an independent against incumbent Democratic Governor Deval Patrick. Recent polls show that he could get as much as 10 percent of the vote, which is greater than Patrick's current margin over Republican nominee Charles Baker.

In Minnesota, Tom Horner is running under the banner of the Independence Party, the successor to the party once led by Jesse Ventura. Horner, a moderate with a Republican pedigree, is hoping to draw Democrats who see their party's nominee, former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, as too liberal, and Republicans who see GOP candidate Tom Emmer as too conservative. Horner has been polling at about 14 percent, which is much more than Dayton's four-point lead over Emmer.

And in Colorado, former Republican U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo, who has been an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, may end up outpolling the official Republican nominee, Dan Maes, a Tea Party activist who inherited the nomination after the leading GOP candidate stumbled in a plagiarism scandal. Current polls show Tancredo taking 18 percent of the vote, about the same percentage by which Democrat John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver, is leading over Maes.

Given the number of these credible outsider challenges, it seems appropriate to look back at recent third-party governors to see how they fared once they won office, given that they lacked a major-party infrastructure and fellow partisans in the legislature.

Conviction and convenience

Since 1970, five governors have been elected as independents or as nominees of a third party. Two were from Maine — James B. Longley in 1974 and Angus King in 1994 and 1998. The others were Walter J. Hickel of the Alaskan Independence Party in 1990, Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of A Connecticut Party in 1990, and Ventura of Minnesota's Reform Party in 1998.

Experts tend to divide them into the categories of independent by conviction (Longley and Ventura) and independent for reasons of electoral strategy or convenience (Weicker, King and Hickel.) The independents of convenience have tended to work more effectively in office.

Hickel and Weicker, who both had had long careers in their home states as Republicans, became independents mainly as a matter of strategy.

Hickel had served most of one term as a Republican governor of Alaska before joining the Nixon administration as U.S. Secretary of the Interior. He was ousted from the cabinet after taking a number of unexpectedly pro-environmentalist stances, and then won back the governorship in 1990 under the banner of the Alaskan Independence Party, which had been born as a secessionist party but became his vehicle. Toward the end of his second term, Hickel returned to the GOP fold.

Weicker, who had represented Connecticut for 18 years in the U.S. Senate as a moderate Republican, ran as a third-party candidate in 1990 to sidestep what would have been a tough Republican primary against more conservative opposition. His high name recognition enabled him to build a third party and win the governorship with 40 percent of the vote.

King's background had been in the Democratic Party in Maine. But in the words of his strategist, Christian Potholm, he took his chances as an independent because "he was afraid the odds were stacked prohibitively against him" in a Democratic primary against former two-term governor and two-term congressman Joseph Brennan. Starting the campaign as a relatively obscure energy entrepreneur and public TV host, King ended up defeating Brennan and Republican Susan Collins with a bare 35 percent of the vote. He was successful enough as governor to be reelected to a second term by a large margin in 1998.

Weicker's signal triumph as governor of Connecticut was the establishment of an income tax in 1991. King, for his part, was successful in enacting a temporary income tax surcharge and secured passage of a program toprovide laptop computers for every middle school student in Maine.

On the fringe

The other two third-party governors were more truly outsiders.

Longley, the Maine politician who blazed a path for King 20 years earlier, was an independent by conviction. He positioned himself as an outsider, railing against what he called "professional politicians."  He said he was someone with "no axes to grind, no political debts to pay." Before running, he had chaired a state commission charged with recommending sharp budget cuts, an experience that placed him in opposition to key interest groups. And in 1974, a year of political upheaval after the Watergate scandal, the voters bought his arguments.

As governor, Longley continued to take an aggressively adversarial stance. After his election, Longley regularly sparred with legislators and the media, and he cast more than 100 vetoes in just one term.

Ventura — the bulky, blunt-spoken wrestler who won Minnesota's governorship in 1998 — took Longley's approach to the next level. Dismissed by the political class at first as an outlandish celebrity, Ventura harnessed voter frustration with both government in general and staunch partisanship in particular, offering a socially moderate, fiscally conservative platform and a promise of adding fresh air to a stale political culture.

Ventura initially lived up to his ambitions. He appointed what is still considered by many to be one of the most talented cabinets in the state's history, and established a new process for vetting state supreme court justices. He accelerated progress on mass transit and a Twin Cities light-rail system. After winning office with just 37 percent of the vote, he soon had approval ratings of around 70 percent. Eventually, though, Ventura appeared to get bored with the job, at one point signing up as a football commentator while still holding the governorship. That move helped sour voters on his tenure.

"He had no fellow partisans in the Legislature, so both major legislative parties attempted to manipulate him," says Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "He responded by trying to ignore the Legislature and to approach it, only when necessary, with overt hostility. Initially he traded on his celebrity, but as that and his popularity faded, he was left with very few political resources."

Among the candidates running this year, Chafee of Rhode Island most closely follows the Weicker model — a moderate-to-liberal Republican with high name recognition who became an independent after falling out of step with his original party. Cahill of Massachusetts approximates Angus King, a Democrat running as an independent in order to challenge a major figure within his own party. Horner of Minnesota shares some of the policy positions of his predecessor Ventura but has a mild-mannered approach that is 180 degrees from the former wrestler's flamboyant style.

It's reasonable to suppose that if any of these three candidates were to win, they would at least have a shot at governing successfully. In Rhode Island's case, if Chafee were to win, it would continue his state's voters' apparent preference for someone other than a Democrat to face off against the heavily Democratic Legislature. "If Chafee wins, he could continue the counterbalance that voters have preferred the last four elections," says Lisa Pelosi, a leading Republican in the state.

The one thing that all of the independent governors share to one degree or another is an inability to institutionalize electoral success. King came closest with his easy second-term victory. While the third parties in Maine and Minnesota still exist, however, neither King nor Ventura worked especially hard on their behalf. Weicker's A Connecticut Party all but died within a few years of its founder's departure from the governor's mansion, and Hickel went so far as to leave his adoptive party before his term ran out.