Shake-Up

07.05.14

Candidates in Maine, Nebraska, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., Challenge Republicans and Democrats Alike

Meet the non-partisan candidates changing American politics.

Innovate. Disrupt. Solve problems.

This mantra of the hi-tech revolution has brought fundamental change to virtually every area of American life except one—politics. America’s polarized politics are mired in a dysfunctional and increasingly unpopular two-party system that has failed to address this nation’s major challenges and threatens its future.

The approval rating for Congress—which just had its least productive year since at least the early 1990s—is at a historical low of roughly 13 percent. Less than a third of Americans have confidence in President Barack Obama’s leadership and voters have an even dimmer view of his Republican opponents. More than 40 percent of Americans now identify as political independents, a larger number than either Republicans or Democrats.

And this anti-partisan trend has not gone unnoticed by aspiring office holders..

In 2014, a number of political entrepreneurs who want to change the system are running as independents around the country. From Maine to Nebraska to Washington, D.C., they are making the case that voters need to look beyond the two parties and try something different to fix American politics.

Jeff McCormick, the founder of the high-tech investing firm Saturn Partners, says he’s applying the same principles that have allowed his company to thrive to an independent campaign for governor of Massachusetts.

In announcing his candidacy McCormick, who pledges a “seven figure commitment” of his own money to the race, said “we can no longer sit on the sidelines and hope the answer” will come from the two political parties.

“We have to bet on ourselves,” he says, “and become part of the solution.”

McCormick, 52, who is married with three young children, lives in Boston’s Back Bay. When explaining why he’s decided to run for governor, he talks like the entrepreneur and businessman he has always been.

“I think we do need a different skill set in the corner office and someone who looks at things with a different perspective,” he told The Daily Beast.  

Whether it’s in this cycle or the next one, eventually some politicians will wake up to the fact that most Americans don’t care much for the bomb-throwers on either side of the aisle.

Since its creation in 1994, Saturn has invested more than $150 million in a wide portfolio of energy, biotechnology and hi-tech companies, traditional manufacturing firms, and even Boston Duck Tours. The company has returned over $1 billion to institutional, non-profit and individual investors.

Although he has been involved in philanthropy and civic affairs, McCormick has never run for office before. Until a couple of years ago when he became an independent, he was a registered Republican who voted and gave money to candidates of both parties. He has an MBA from Syracuse University, is socially moderate on issues like abortion and gay rights, and is focusing his campaign on job creation and the need for fiscal responsibility and effectiveness in state government.

A former All-American college lacrosse player at Syracuse who has run the Boston Marathon six times, he says better management of state government would yield “better outcomes without just throwing more and more money at things.”

And McCormick isn’t the only independent in a crowded field to succeed two-term Democratic Governor Deval Patrick.

Evan Falchuk, a 44-year-old lawyer and former executive of Best Doctors Inc., a health provider rating service, is not only running but also trying to launch the United Independent Party of Massachusetts.

Falchuk has already turned in more than the 10,000 certified signatures needed to qualify for the ballot and has contributed about $700,000 of his own money to the campaign. And if he wins at least three percent of the vote in November, his Independent Party would gain state recognition and qualify for ballot access in 2016 races.

“At the end of the day I’m a voter who got tired of voting for the lesser of two evils. I decided I could complain about it or do something,” Falchuk says.

Fifty-three percent of Massachusetts’ registered voters are unaffiliated independents, about ten points higher than the national average. In fact, there are more independent voters than there are Republican or Democratic voters. Still, the state is overwhelmingly Democratic when it comes to officeholders.

Three Democrats will face off in the September primary: state Treasurer Steven Grossman, who topped the balloting at the party’s June state convention, Attorney General Martha Coakley and former Medicare administrator Don Berwick.

Although she has the highest name recognition and leads the polls, many Democrats view Coakley, who lost to Republican Scott Brown in a 2010 special election to fill Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat, as a flawed candidate, a big reason, why she was unable to secure the party nomination at the state convention.

On the Republican side, Charlie Baker, a former state official, health care administrator and a 2010 candidate for governor, will face far right Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher, who sued the Massachusetts GOP to win primary ballot access. Fisher charged fraud in the ballot counting at the party’s March convention and said party officials tried to keep him off the ballot by offering him $1 million not to run for governor.

“If we had really outstanding candidates I wouldn’t be running—this is not an ego trip,” asserts McCormick. “There are a lot of Democrats and Republicans I speak to who don’t like their candidates.”

McCormick says his internal polling shows two-thirds of Massachusetts residents are open to the idea of voting for an independent candidate. Other independent candidates around the country say they’ve been seeing the same thing in their polls.

McCormick’s polling also shows his name recognition, which started out at two percent, is now in the high 20’s after he ran a series of television ads introducing himself to voters.

A new super PAC organized by Paul W. Johnson, a Boston lawyer who served as chief legal counsel to former GOP Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, was recently launched for the purpose of supporting independent candidates like McCormick.

“The two-party system in Massachusetts is broken,” Johnson told the Boston Globe when he announced the PAC.

Last fall, McCormick traveled to Washington to have dinner with Angus King, one of the two independents in the U.S. Senate, and got some advice about mounting a campaign.

King won the Maine governor’s office as an independent in 1994 and served there until 2003. He was elected as an independent in 2012 to fill Olympia Snowe’s U.S. Senate seat. McCormick says King advised him to stay on message and be persistent.

King has also offered advice to Jim Jenkins, an independent candidate running for the U.S. Senate seat in Nebraska being vacated by retiring GOP Senator Mike Johanns.

Jenkins is a cattle rancher and successful businessman active in state agricultural affairs. He is running as a centrist alternative to Tea Party-aligned GOP candidate Ben Sasse and Democrat Dave Domina, a trial lawyer.

Jenkins, a Democrat until two years ago, says he was approached about running for office by the Democratic Party but wanted to run as a non-partisan with a message of changing politics.

Nebraska is the only state in the country with a non-partisan state legislature, and Jenkins thought his independent message would resonate with Nebraskans looking for a centrist alternative.

“I’m emphasizing that I’m a bridge builder, not left or right,” he told The Beast.

Jenkins, who supports open primaries, has pledged not to caucus with either party if elected to the Senate. He says he plans to focus on the national debt and budget issues, government and tax reform.

Sasse, a former Bush Administration official and the president of Midland University a small Nebraska college affiliated with the Lutheran Church, is viewed as the heavy favorite in the deep red state.

Jenkins says a lot of people in Nebraska view Sasse as a Washington insider. “He’s a Washington-based candidate who is funded from outside the state,” Jenkins says. Sasse won a hard-fought Republican primary with the help of negative ads from outside conservative groups, which Jenkins hopes will turn off Nebraskans who pride themselves on civility.

Jenkins, who says he plans to put several hundred thousand dollars of his own money into the race, has won support from both Democrats and Republicans.

“Everywhere I’m going the message is resonating,” Jenkins says.

That’s the same thing Pennsylvania Independent congressional candidate Nick Troiano says he’s hearing on the campaign trail. The 25-year-old is just old enough to be elected to the House of Representatives, and despite his youth, he’s extremely articulate, politically knowledgeable and well connected with groups involved in political and fiscal reform.

Troiano is running in northeastern Pennsylvania’s solidly Republican 10th District. Rep. Tom Marino, who is running for his third term there, has already raised more than half a million dollars for the race. Troiano, meanwhile, has raised less than $100,000, which is still a significantly bigger haul than Democratic candidate Scott Brion.

Troiano says he’s a fiscal conservative and former Republican who thinks the GOP has been captured by the right-wing fringe. He decided to become an independent and mount a congressional campaign after the 2013 government shutdown.

He attended college and grad school at Georgetown University, where he headed the Georgetown Social Innovation and Public Service Fund, a $1.5 million endowment that supports young social entrepreneurs and volunteers. He wrote his Master's thesis on the underrepresentation of young people in Congress.

He was the national campus director for the failed 2012 Americans Elect independent presidential effort before helping to found The Can Kicks Back, a Millenial-focused group affiliated with the Simpson-Bowles Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. 

It was Troiano’s idea to create the video in which former Senator Alan Simpson dances to “Gangnam Style” to promote fiscal responsibility. The video went viral on YouTube.

One of Troiano’s campaign advisors is Russ Verney, who was the head of the Reform Party and led Ross Perot’s independent presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996.

Verney says Troiano faces a real challenge in this heavily Republican District, but is “very smart and a very hard worker” who just might be able to pull it off.

Troiano has already gotten national media attention, including profiles in The Washington Post, National Journal and, Roll Call.

Like other independents running this year, Troiano says his internal polling shows most voters are receptive to the idea of voting for someone who doesn’t belong to either party.

But the challenge for him and other independent candidates will be getting centrist independent voters to turn out in a mid-term election year as well as peeling off dissatisfied Republicans and Democrats.

According to the Pew Research Center, most Millennials are mistrustful of political institutions. A full 50 percent of them identify as independents, a larger percentage than any other age group.

“This campaign is being run by digital natives,” says Troiano, whose small campaign staff is almost entirely young people. But while Facebook and Twitter figure heavily in his campaign strategy, he’s also not afraid to hit the pavement in search of votes. For the entire month of July, he’ll be visiting the district’s counties in a DeLorean for what he calls his “Back To The Future” tour. 

In Maine, Eliot Cutler, who narrowly lost the governorship to Republican Paul LePage in 2010, is running again as an independent candidate for governor.

This time the Democrats have a stronger candidate in six-term Congressman Mike Michaud, who the Portland Press Herald recently showed leading the race. Cutler, meanwhile, is running a distant third.

But the poll also found almost half of the state’s voters are undecided, and many say they will vote for the candidate who stands the best chance of defeating LePage.

The Campaign for Maine PAC has spent $125,000 so far on local TV ads supporting Cutler. In 2010, the group spent more than $500,000 on Cutler’s behalf.

An independent candidate could even be the next mayor of the city most synonymous with partisanship. In Washington, D.C., five-term city council member David Catania, another former Republican, is running as an independent candidate for mayor against Democratic city council member Muriel Bowser. If Catania wins he would not only be the first white, non-Democratic mayor of the city, but also its first gay chief executive.

Independents running for office in most states face many hurdles like from having to collect more signatures than Democrats and Republicans to qualify for the ballot and having smaller maximum campaign contribution limits.

Without an established party structure and all of the associated financial and organizational advantages that come with it, independent candidates find it much tougher to win elections. They also have trouble raising money. That’s why so many of them are self-financing entrepreneurs like independent former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg has a Super PAC called Independence USA that spent over $10 million in the past year supporting mostly Democratic candidates including New Jersey Senator Corey Booker and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. But although he was the nation’s highest profile independent office holder, he has not used the PAC to support other centrist independent candidates.

In a year when voters are so fed up with both parties, it could be easier for independents to ride a wave of anger and desire for change to victory. But without significant resources, and sometimes even with them, independent candidates can often have trouble convincing the media and voters they can actually win.

Although she had significant name recognition and media coverage, was well funded and had a list of celebrity endorsements, Marianne Williamson, an independent candidate for Congress in California’s 33rd District, came in fourth in the June 3 open primary election behind a Republican and two Democrats.

Money flows to power, never more so than in the age of unlimited political contributions. Most wealthy donors who reap the benefits of the current campaign finance system don’t want to jeopardize their influence by supporting a risky bet.

“It’s brutal raising money until you get to the tipping point where people say this is not only the best guy with the best message but this guy can win,” says McCormick.

No one knows that better than Dan Schnur, an independent candidate for California Secretary of State who finished fourth in the state’s open primary election last month. Schnur raised about half a million dollars while top vote getter Democrat Alex Padilla raised over $2 million.

“If you’re going to get people to vote in a fundamentally different way than they ever have before… If an Independent candidate wants to get elected, it’s going to require huge amounts of time and money to convince voters to break their traditional voting habits,” says Schnur about what he learned from that campaign.

Despite the challenges facing independent candidates, however, it’s inevitable that some force will eventually capitalize on the major parties’ decision to abandon the political middle. As the Democratic and Republican politicians look to pander to their respective bases, a vast opening has appeared at the center where partisans fear to tread.

Whether it’s in this cycle or the next one, eventually some politicians will wake up to the fact that most Americans don’t care much for the bomb-throwers on either side of the aisle. The rise of appealing independent candidates can only help hasten this development, and hopefully bring an end to our era of gridlock, inefficiency, and waste.