Spoilers or Agents of Change?

Green Party Wrestles With Identity as It Recruits Candidates for Federal Races

Posted January 15, 2004 at 12:50pm

Just as Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign helped reshape political debates across the country in 2000, Green Party officials, left without their well-known standard bearer this year, hope to replicate Nader’s influence on the Congressional level by running candidates in 60 to 80 high-profile House and Senate races.

And just as Nader’s candidacy arguably cost then-Vice President Al Gore the presidency in 2000, Green Party Congressional candidates could likewise impact a few close elections come November — even though some of the 300,000 registered Greens might now be willing to vote for Democrats rather than endure continued Republican control.

At the House level, it’s possible that the Greens could be a factor in the Northwest and Southwest — particularly in New Mexico, where their candidates have arguably cost Democrats victories in two Congressional districts.

Fifteen Green candidates are already running for Congress this year, and the party hopes to have 1,000 candidates for federal, state and local positions on the ballot in November. Marnie Glickman, co-chairwoman of the Green Party of the United States, says she’s optimistic about the party’s ability to increase the number of Greens running across the country from a previous high of 558 in 2002.

Glickman shrugged off Nader’s decision not to seek the White House as a Green this year (he plans to announce at the end of the month whether he’ll run as an Independent), and said it would not affect the party’s recruiting efforts.

“It might give us more inspiration … to recruit more candidates,” she said.

The Greens are expected to run a presidential candidate regardless of what Nader does.

For some political observers, however, 2000 represented a high-water mark for the Green Party, and many don’t expect much this year from the party that garnered 2.74 percent of the nationwide vote in 2000, when Nader was on the ballot.

“2000 was their big year,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. The Greens can “make a difference in several House races or Senate races. But that’s the key, making the difference between the two party candidates, not actually winning.”

Glickman conceded that it is highly unlikely the Greens will gain a seat in Congress this cycle.

“It’s unclear how much we are going to be able to increase the number of our federal candidates, mostly because it costs so much to run for federal office and because Greens care a lot about winning elections, and in the upcoming elections, we do not expect to have any Congressional victories,” she said.

So why are Greens fighting for ballot space in Congressional elections if even they don’t expect to win?

“We have to run in these high-profile races just to get attention,” explained Rick Lass, a Green candidate for the New Mexico state Legislature and a representative to the national Green Party. “We run with no expectation of winning but knowing that we’re going to steer the debate. … We run for the local races to win.”

However, in a few close Congressional races, especially in states like New Mexico, this attempt to “get attention” could be enough to tip the balance in favor of Republican candidates.

In a 1997 special election in New Mexico’s heavily Democratic 3rd district, the Green candidate took 17 percent of the vote, enabling Republican Bill Redmond to win with 43 percent. He was defeated in the 1998 general election.

And in several recent elections in the Albuquerque-based 1st district, Democrats have been unable to defeat Rep. Heather Wilson (R), in part because the Green candidates have run so strong.

“It’s a district which, in terms of party registration and ethnic distribution of the voters, has the potential of easily going to the Democrats if it wasn’t split,” said William Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University.

Army veteran Jeremy Brown announced earlier this month that he would run in the 1st as a Green.

State Senate President Richard Romero, the 2002 Democratic nominee against Wilson who’s probably going to get the nomination again, “very much wants us to stay out, but he isn’t really willing to run on the issues we want him to run on,” Lass said.

But it remains to be seen whether the same sentiment will take hold in Washington and Oregon, which collectively could see a half-dozen competitive House races in which the Greens could hurt the Democrats if the races are particularly close.

“The Greens [in Washington state], since the Nader campaign, have been very quiet,” said George Howland Jr., political editor of the Seattle Weekly. “When I talk to different kinds of activists, it’s much more of a time of retrenchment, a return to anybody but [President] Bush, and I think that’s going to translate down to the Congressional level as well.”

Lunch said that the 2000 election had “a considerable sobering of the hard left.” However, he identified Hawaii as another place where the Greens could be important.

In Oregon, Timothy Hermach, a prominent environmentalist and founder of the Native Forest Council, is considering a run against Sen. Ron Wyden (D), a move that could prompt Republicans to re-examine the race in a state where Bush is hoping to compete this year.

For Democrats, the best way to stifle opposition from the left in a close district is to simply keep the election to a two-party contest.

“Democratic leaders do everything possible privately and publicly to encourage Green candidates not to run,” Sabato said. “They always make the practical argument to them that you’re simply electing a Republican.”

Glickman acknowledged that this strategy has had some success.

“We know that the Democratic Party operatives are going directly to [Green] party activists and party leaders trying to convince them that the Democrat will meet the party’s needs — they have for the past three and a half years and will continue to do so,” she said. “I think they created the spoiler myth and they actively work to perpetuate the myth that Greens spoil the political process, and that myth has been effective in some places.”

Another response by Democrats to a Green Party candidacy can be to go on the offensive, said Howland, citing liberal Rep. Jim McDermott’s (D-Wash.) aggressive campaign against a Green candidate in 2000, even though his seat was and is safe.

“McDermott took that really seriously, he campaigned really hard, he was very aggressive and he was pissed off,” Howland recalled. “I think what we have seen here in Washington state, rather than an attempt to say, ‘Come on, let’s all be friends, let’s join hands,’ there has been a very combative response by the Democratic Party, Democratic activists and Democratic elected officials.”

But House Democratic strategists say they aren’t worried yet.

“At this point there aren’t many Green candidates running in truly competitive districts, so it hasn’t factored into our planning nationally a whole lot,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed.

Democrats need to be talking to Greens about why “the first priority should be defeating [Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas] and the House Republican leadership, and the only meaningful way to do that is by voting for a candidate who can win and who can vote to elect [Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] Speaker,” Speed added.