The numbers tell the story of America’s discontent. A quarter of voters name dissatisfaction with government as the number one problem facing the country today. More voters identify as independents (44 percent) than either Democrats (32 percent) or Republicans (22 percent), according to a January 2018 Gallup poll. Yet there are just two independents in the U.S. Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, zero independents in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a lone independent governor, Bill Walker of Alaska.
Under the banner of Unite America, a group formerly known as the Centrist Project endorsed a slate of five candidates Tuesday at the National Press Club for a “country over party” movement they believe can crack the gridlock of the Republican versus Democrat duopoly.
“These candidates are the vanguard of a new movement in our politics to bridge the growing partisan divide and to ensure government truly represents the people—not the party bosses or special interests,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America and a former independent congressional candidate in Pennsylvania.
The goal is to convince voters that they are not wasting a vote by casting it for an independent, but that with what is known as the “fulcrum strategy,” electing just one or two independents to closely divided state legislatures and the U.S. Senate could ultimately swing the balance of power.
Trial attorney Craig O’Dear, running as an independent for the Senate in Missouri, says in a video produced by Unite America: “There’s no more certain way to waste a vote in this environment than to vote for one more party line Democrat or one more party line Republican.”
Unite America is not a third party. If anything, it’s an “un-party,” say its adherents. Based in Colorado, it looks for like-minded candidates to endorse and support who sign on to its “Declaration of Independents,” broad principles of common ground and common-sense policies that put the public interest first, along with “the timeless values of opportunity, equality, and stewardship.”
Even with that wide latitude, there was one drop out before Tuesday’s press conference, Wyoming Senate candidate David Dodson, a wealthy entrepreneur who’d jumped into the race days before. He had indicated that should he win in November he would likely caucus with the Republicans, undermining his independence.
Businessman Greg Orman, now running for governor of Kansas on the Unite America slate, made headlines as an independent in 2014 when he challenged Republican Pat Roberts. Polls had the two men tied on election day, but Roberts won by 10 points. Orman was constantly asked which party he would caucus with in Washington. He wouldn’t say, which left Democrats wary he would caucus with the GOP, and Republicans wary too of where he would land.
Convincing voters that Independent means Independent is the challenge these candidates face. In addition to Orman, O’Dear, and Walker, Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes, the only woman on the slate, is seeking to become Maine’s third independent governor, and Neal Simon, a wealthy investment adviser.
Simon is committing his own money to run for the Senate in Maryland, a very blue state with a Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who is running for re-election with an approval rating of 67 percent. That number encourages Simon to hope that voters will look beyond party labels.
Founded in 2013, Unite America’s leadership includes founder and co-chair Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer in public policy at Dartmouth College and author of the Centrist Manifesto, and board member Marc Merrill, co-founder and co-chairman of Riot Games. Joel Searby, who managed Evan McMullin’s independent presidential campaign in 2016, serves as senior strategist.
A healthy dose of skepticism is in order as these wealthy, public-minded individuals try once again to align the stars in a way that offers voters more choice. “We need an insurgency of the rational,” Wheelan says in his Centrist Manifesto, written after his failed bid for a congressional seat in 2009, “We need an insurgency of the rational: a generation of Americans who are fed up with the current political system, who believe we can do better, and most important, who are ready to do something about it. Are you one of those people?”