A third party vote is almost always an idiotic gesture that promotes enemies and punishes allies, but in next Tuesdays elections two strong independent candidates deserve serious consideration. One of them Doug Hoffman in New Yorks 23rd Congressional District could actually win his race and send a powerful message to the GOP and the country. A political party isnt a family, or a church, or an army, so the strategic support of an independent contender with a real chance of victory isnt a betrayal and may offer a common sense means to advance a conservative agenda.
The most recent polling for a special election in this strongly Republican district shows a three way race between the Democratic nominee, Bill Owens, the moderate-liberal Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, and the candidate of New Yorks Conservative Party, Hoffman. According to poll numbers and to observers on the district, the Democrat currently enjoys a slight lead (with 35%) over the Republican (at 30%) , but Conservative challenger Hoffman is within striking distance of both of them at 23%. Moreover, all the momentum in fundraising and endorsements seems to be going in Hoffmans direction: I began talking up his campaign two weeks ago on my radio show, and many of my talk radio colleagues have taken up his cause. More significantly, hes won endorsements from an impressive array of national Republican leaders, including Sarah Palin, Steve Forbes, Rick Santorum, Dick Armey, Fred Thompson, and Michelle Bachman, with Minnesota governor Pawlenty on the verge of adding his support.
Its not that Hoffman is an extraordinary or inspirational candidate unfortunately, hes not. But he has unequivocally committed himself to the conservative principles that most Republicans share, while the partys nominee in the district has spent ten years in the legislature, compiling a moderate-to-liberal voting record, including enthusiastic support for gay marriage and abortion rights. If GOP loyalists get the message that she cant win, they will conclude that the only way to deny the seat to the Democrats (and to prevent Obama from gaining an upset win in a district considered solidly Republican) will be to shift support to the Conservative Party contender. This makes sense because Hoffman has promised that if hes elected, he will caucus with the GOP in the House of Representatives (adding one more vote against Nancy Pelosis return as Speaker) and will seek re-election in 2010 on the Republican line.
The other independent on Tuesdays ballot is Chris Daggett whos running for Governor of New Jersey. Hes a bright, well-informed candidate whos worked in the past for both Republican and Democratic governors and who performed well in recent televised debates. Those broadcasts, and an endorsement from the states leading newspaper, caused a spike in his polling numbers: the latest average from Real Clear Politics shows Daggett at 15.3% --- but still with less than half the support of Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine (39.3%) and GOP challenger Chris Christie (39.2%) in a breathlessly close contest that looks as if its headed to a photo finish. Daggett claims he can still win if a snow ball effect kicks in during the campaigns final days, but for several reasons a vote for him represents a terrible choice for conservatives while backing Hoffman is appropriate and sensible.
In fact, the differences between these two independent contenders actually provide some general guidelines on the crucial distinction between destructive and constructive third party candidacies. Before supporting a campaign outside the two party system, there are four major questions responsible voters ought to answer:
1- Is the independent contender more ideologically forthright and consistent than the major party contenders, or less so? Some third party candidates think Ross Perot or Jesse Venturarun as mushy, eccentric hybrids. They insist that they are neither more conservative nor more liberal than their rivals, just different fresh and independent. Supporting such non-ideological candidates in no way advances conservative principles. Chris Daggett is precisely that sort of candidate, trying to appeal simultaneously to right and left. Doug Hoffman, on the other hand, is without question the most conservative alternative in his race, and so lays logical claim to conservative support.2- Could the third party contender do a successful job in the office for which hes running? Jesse Ventura proved a pathetic bust as Governor of Minnesota because he wasnt able to work with either party in the legislature he was just a lonely publicity hound who reacted (occasionally) and never led. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California has also tried to govern as an independent (though elected as a Republican) and has met with similarly disappointing results: with scant backing from either party in the legislature, hes become almost irrelevant in Sacramento. Even in the hugely unlikely event that Chris Daggett became New Jerseys next governor, hed never be able to put through his sweeping tax reform (that actually features a big expansion of the sales tax) or other elements of an ambitious agenda. Both Republicans and Democrats in Trenton would work to undermine him, and seize power for a legislature in which the governor enjoyed no support. Doug Hoffman, on the other hand, would never be isolated or irrelevant in Washington: hes committed to caucusing with the GOP, and would add one more clearly conservative voice to the beleaguered Republicans in the House.
3- Whats the message that the election of an independent candidate would send the country? A Hoffman victory would reassure press and public that voters in a conservative upstate district (they gave GOP Congressman Paul McHugh 65.3% of the vote in 2008) are still conservative, and that they want a clear-cut alternative to Obamanism, not a split-the-difference moderate. A Daggett victory in New Jersey, on the other hand, would undermine the impression of a conservative tidal wave next Tuesdaya tidal wave that could easily materialize with likely GOP victories in Virginia, and in New York City (where Mayor Bloomberg is running as the official GOP nominee). If Chris Christie brings the GOP back to power in heavily Democratic New Jersey, the media will identify a Republican sweep; if Daggett (or, heaven-forbid, Corzine) wins, theyll talk only of a split decision, denying conservatives the momentum and encouragement we need.
4- Is there a legitimate reason to bolt from the major parties in this particular race? In the Doug Hoffmans Congressional race, there definitely is a solid case for walking away from the GOP nominee. Most importantly, she wasnt chosen in a primary but was selected in an idiotic decision by local party bosses. Because of the special election calendar (necessitated because previous Congressman Paul McHugh was appointed by President Obama as the new Secretary of the Army) there wasnt a chance for voters to express their preferences. In New Jersey, 330,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican primary, and Chris Christie won decisively (55% to 42%) against a more conservative rival, Steve Lonergan. Unlike Dede Sozzafava in New Yorks 23rd district, Christie is definitely within the mainstream of the Republican Party which is why no nationally prominent conservative leaders are supporting the independent (in stark contrast to the New York Congressional race).
In most races, of course, third and fourth and fifth party candidates gain no traction and achieve nothing beyond enriching their own egos. In many cases, those fringe party contenders only serve to elect the candidate who disagrees with them most thereby pushing the nation away from their ideals, not toward them. Consider the celebrated Minnesota Senate race in 2008. The ultra-conservative Constitution Party fielded a candidate named James Niemacki, who attracted 8,907 votes. This represented a pathetic 0.308% of the Minnesota electorate. But if just one third of these voters had decided that Republican Senator Norm Coleman was vastly preferable for true conservatives to flaming liberal Al Franken, then Coleman would have won the race with a relatively comfortable margin of 2,657 votes. (In the final official recount Franken won by only 312 votes). This would have denied Barack Obama, Harry Reid and the Democrats their filibuster proof 60 vote Senate majority. Yet with this fateful vote switch, the impact on the Constitution Party would have been minimal: would it have made this political fringe group any more of a joke, had it earned 0.203% of the vote rather than 0.308%?
If voting matters (and as the most meaningful resistance to Obamas big government schemes it certainly does) then conservatives should use their precious votes to elect candidates who will move American politics back toward the right and away from the leftist fringe of the president and his true believers. They should also use elections to send a message to the political class, the media and their fellow citizens about new directions for the country. We can send that message next Tuesday with smashing victories for Republican candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, and for an independent Conservative (who will work with Republicans when elected) in the 23rd District of New York.