When Alaska Governor Bill Walker first ran for the state’s highest office in 2010, he faced a problem: many of his friends and supporters couldn’t vote for him in the closed Republican primary because they weren’t affiliated with the party.
Four years later he ran as an independent and won the general election.
Walker’s success was due in part to the decision of Democratic nominee, Byron Mallott, to drop his bid and become Walker’s running mate. That alliance propelled Walker to victory over a Republican incumbent.
“We discovered that we liked our state a whole lot more than we liked politics,” Walker said. “So we did something that you don’t typically do in politics. We combined our campaign.”
Walker’s experience as an independent candidate was part of a broader discussion at the National Press Club Wednesday morning on a movement to elect nonpartisans to Congress and statehouses across the nation.
That effort is spearheaded by The Centrist Project, a nonprofit founded in 2013 by Dartmouth professor and one-time Congressional candidate Charles Wheelan.
His book, “The Centrist Manifesto,” is credited with starting the movement. It outlined a strategy to elect four to five independents to the U.S. Senate. Once elected, these centrists would hold the swing votes necessary for either party to pass legislation.
“Perhaps easier said than done,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of The Centrist Project. Troiano outlined several obstacles for independent candidates including finding a campaign team, raising money, getting on the ballot, and attracting media attention.
He said the biggest problem is that voters only invest time and resources in independents if they believe the candidates can win. The Centrist Project aims to overcome these challenges by providing support to independents.
“What we are doing is on one hand building the electoral infrastructure and supporter network to help independents run campaigns,” Troiano said. “And on the other hand we are shifting people’s perceptions of what is possible in our politics by winning races and building a new political movement from the ground up.”
While obstacles may be abundant, Troiano pointed to his fellow panelists as an indication that the current political environment may be fertile ground for independent candidates.
Joining Troiano and Walker for the press conference were Iowa State Senator David Johnson, Alaska State Rep. Jason Grenn, and Maine State Representative Owen Casas.
Johnson became Iowa’s first independent legislator in 45 years after he left the Republican Party last summer in opposition to President Donald Trump’s campaign. Grenn and Casas both helped create bipartisan governing majorities in their respective states after winning as independents.
“I realized that a party wasn’t necessary for me to read a policy, read information and form an opinion,” Casas said. The Marine Corps veteran said he was shocked by the lack of effort from legislators on both sides of the aisle to work together.
“I think that the gap between the two parties is a little more self-induced than we would like,” Casas said.
The Centrist Project is bringing together possible Senate and gubernatorial candidates for a gathering next month in Philadelphia. The outcome of the meeting will be a slate of independent candidates for races across the nation, Troiano said.
With such a high barrier to entry for federal and statewide offices, The Centrist Project is only interested in candidates that would be instantly credible, Troiano added.
“We are just pragmatists at the end of the day and people who can win federal office are those with high name recognition or an ability to raise money,” Troiano said. “So we’re not just out to support anyone that is willing to put their name on the ballot because at the end of the day the goal is to win races.”
The group’s first endorsement for 2018 is Terry Hayes in Maine’s gubernatorial race, where Governor Paul LePage is term limited. Hayes is currently the state’s first independent treasurer.
Money and manpower is essential for political campaigns at any level. The Centrist Project is working to build up a donor and volunteer base, which could take several election cycles, Troiana said.
The group is also targeting statehouses for the first time, in an effort to grow the movement from the ground up. The Centrist Project is identifying states and districts where independent candidates have the highest chance of winning, including Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Oregon, Nevada, and Connecticut.
Troiano said “there is something happening out there” in the movement to elect independents. He pointed to the fact that 40 percent of voters identified as independents in a May 2017 Gallup poll.
“The two major parties don’t agree on much except to make it very difficult for anyone else to compete,” Troiano said. “Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that a growing number of Americans are ready to embrace a new way.”