Read “Breaking the partisan duopoly, part II” here.
Americans in a sense rejected both the Republicans and Democrats in the recent midterm elections. Republican politicians and campaign officials obviously are more disappointed, since they expected much bigger gains given President Biden’s low approval rating and the highest inflation in four decades. But Democrats can’t be pleased that they lost the majority of House votes in a four-point turnaround from their margin in 2020 and that 80 percent of Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction while they control both Congress and the presidency. Exit polls suggest that many voters are unhappy with both of the major parties and would prefer some better option than being forced to choose the lesser of two evils.
Last year, I decided to do my part to try to break our increasingly dysfunctional political duopoly by running for a seat in the Washington state Senate. I’m not a newcomer to electoral politics. I was first elected to the Washington State House of Representatives in 1990, I served six years on the King County Council, I was elected chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, and I was the party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2016. But as those who have read my previous articles for the Niskanen blog will know, I became politically homeless when Donald Trump and his MAGA followers took over the Republican Party.
So I ran for office as an independent. I spent much of the past year ringing doorbells and having hundreds of discussions with voters. Spoiler alert: I lost. But my experience on the front lines convinced me that we are in a dangerous and divided political moment, from which deep structural changes may soon emerge.
I left the Republican Party in the fall of 2017 and became an independent. I spent the 2018 election cycle working with Unite America, which was originally known as The Centrist Project. Our mission that year was to elect moderate independents as a step toward creating a new centrist party. We recruited dozens of candidates, at levels ranging from state legislative contests to U.S. Senate elections, and helped them run serious, professional campaigns. Unfortunately, they all got crushed. The lesson I drew from that experience was that independents can’t win in a three-way race against a Republican and a Democrat. But I continued to believe that under the right circumstances, a credible independent with the resources to run a serious campaign could beat a Republican or a Democrat in a one-on-one race.
So I decided to test this theory by running for the state senate in my home district, where the conditions seemed perfect. The 31st legislative district in Washington overlaps with much of Pierce County, east of Tacoma and southeast of Seattle. It’s mostly a mix of old and new suburban communities, but it’s not a high-tech, high-affluence district like you find just outside of Seattle. There are a lot of blue-collar workers here. I’ve lived here my whole life, and it has changed enormously from the mostly rural area that it was when I was growing up. There are still a few dairy farms hanging on, but the suburbs have been exploding, particularly with so many people moving here after being priced out of Seattle. A lot of problems have come with this growth, including overcrowded schools and a serious lack of transportation infrastructure.
The 31st is a 60 percent Republican district, where Democrats haven’t been competitive at least since it was redistricted in 1992. Any Democrat running in 2022 would be guaranteed to lose, and the Democrats wouldn’t put any money into the race — even though the Republican incumbent, Senator Phil Fortunato, is among the most extreme right-wing members of the legislature.
Fortunato is hardcore anti-abortion, with no exceptions. He has voted against every gun control measure, including background checks and a ban on bump stocks. He has voted against magazine limits and in favor of proposals to allow guns in school board meetings. He says outrageous things and does outrageous things. He was kicked out of the state Capitol because he refused to comply with COVID-19 protocols. He and a handful of others created a Freedom Caucus in the state Senate because they didn’t view the very conservative Republican leadership as conservative enough. Fortunato is not representative of the district, which is generally Republican but not extremist. The two Republican state House members from the district, Drew Stokesbary and Eric Robertson, are much more in line with their constituents, much more pragmatic and centrist. Fortunato also has a reputation for providing poor constituent service; I received lots of communications from people who wrote, “I tried to meet with him and he wouldn’t even answer me.”
So it seemed to me that a conservative-leaning former Republican like myself might stand a chance against Fortunato in a one-on-one race. And that could happen because Washington is one of the few states that has a top-two primary, in which the top two finishers in the nonpartisan primary election in August 2022 would move on to the general election in November, regardless of what party they belonged to. The top-two system is what has allowed a comparatively moderate Republican like U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, who was one of the 10 Republican House members to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, to get through the GOP primaries when he’s up against more extreme candidates. Running as an independent is also more viable in Washington than in other states for other reasons, including the fact that all you have to do to get on the ballot is sign a form and pay a filing fee of 1 percent of the salary for the office that you seek.
In December 2021, I reached out to a friend who’s one of the top Democratic campaign consultants in the state. He agreed it was an idea worth exploring and set up a meeting with the campaign staff for the Senate Democratic Caucus in Olympia. We agreed that it was worth running a poll of the district to see if an independent candidacy would be viable, and the Democrats found the money for such a survey.
The results, which came back in February, were highly encouraging. 70 percent of respondents indicated that they were either likely or very likely to vote for a qualified independent. I still had name recognition in the district — which after all was my home district, the one I had represented for years in both the state legislature and on the King County Council. Lots of Republicans in the district continued to be mad at me for rejecting Trump, but even so, 18 percent of Republicans said they’d be open to voting for me. Trump, after all, only got 51 percent of the 2020 presidential vote in this district. 26 percent of district respondents said that they were hard Republicans and 19 percent were hard Democrats, but when you added up the people who said they were soft Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, that was half of the voters. The polls suggested that I would begin the race tied with Fortunato at 43-43.
And so I announced my candidacy in March and got to work raising money and ringing doorbells. In May came the thrilling news that the Democratic Party leadership had succeeded in dissuading any Democrat from filing in our race. The primary ballot contestants would just be me, Fortunato, and a nonserious, fringe independent. I felt like the biggest hurdle — avoiding a three-way race — had been overcome.
No one planned it, but it turned out I was one of a handful of serious independent candidates around the country in 2022. Others included Betsy Johnson in the Oregon governor’s race, Bill Walker in the Alaska governor’s race, and Clint Smith running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Arizona’s 5th Congressional District. Most notably, Evan McMullin, who had run for president as an independent in 2016, was running as an independent in 2022 for the U.S. Senate in Utah against Republican Mike Lee. As was the case in my race, the Utah Democrats had refrained from fielding a senatorial candidate, knowing that only a conservative independent in that overwhelmingly red state stood any chance of defeating Lee. And, for a while, Evan’s polling in his one-on-one race looked as favorable as mine.
I knew that I would encounter significant institutional obstacles in running as an independent. If you’re running as a Republican or a Democrat, you have a built-in base of supporters and volunteers. You can send out an email to Republican or Democratic activists, and they’ll all show up. But there are very few independent activists. I couldn’t count on a party to provide volunteers, so I had to rely on family and friends; my brother-in-law put up most of the signs, and my son, daughter, and son-in-law doorbelled with me. There was no list of independent donors that I could go to in order to raise money. I was not eligible for the considerable financial support that the Democrats could have offered via the state party and the Senate Democratic Caucus political committee. And although my campaign would receive independent expenditures and get-out-the-vote support from Democratic interest groups, we were a lower priority for them than Democrats in tough races.
Still, my organization ran a robust, well-funded campaign. Between our campaign and independent spending by supportive groups we spent $174,000 — definitely not the most well funded legislative race in Washington, but still a substantial amount. We outspent the incumbent on voter contact, including direct mail, digital ads, mass texting, robocalls, and a small cable-TV buy. I also outworked the senator, doorbelling roughly 5,000 homes and putting up hundreds of signs. And I received the endorsements of both major newspapers, the Seattle Times and the Tacoma News Tribune.
I’ll be honest — I thought my chances were very good. It was obvious, from talking to voters, that a lot of them considered Fortunato an extremist — or at any rate they believed that he was an ineffective legislator who only cared about fighting the culture war.
I ran because I’m passionate about a long list of state issues and have worked on them throughout my career, including public safety, transportation, and growth management. Public education, in particular, is an area where the state legislature has consistently fallen short, refusing to uphold its constitutional responsibility of fully funding all school districts equally. Instead, despite losing in court time after time, the legislature still forces school funding to depend on local property taxes, which produces a divide between rich school districts and poor school districts. That’s just wrong. When I met with voters, I vowed to fight for every available dollar to go to K-12 education without cutting human service programs or higher education — and most of those voters agreed with me.
Washington also has an antiquated and absurd tax structure. Ours is in fact among the most regressive in the nation because we don’t have an income tax. Instead we fund basic services by relying on sales taxes, which fall more heavily on lower-income voters. Since state revenues have doubled over the last decade, I didn’t think we needed to raise taxes. But I argued that we did need to distribute the revenues better, particularly toward underfunded county services like public safety — and, again, a lot of the voters who I talked to agreed with me.
When I filed as a candidate, a line on the form asked: “Which political party do you prefer?” I left that line blank, so on the ballot next to my name it said: “States no party preference.” If I’d have written that I was running as an independent, it would have said: “Prefers Independent Party.” You could make up anything; I could have said that I was running as the candidate of the Barking Beagle Party and that would have gone on the ballot. But I wasn’t running as the candidate of any established independent party, although (for reasons I will describe later) I couldn’t list myself as a candidate of the Forward Party, even though I have been involved with the creation of that new centrist party. I told reporters that if I was elected, I wouldn’t caucus with either party. But Democrats at that time held a 28-21 majority in the Senate, and I said that I would be willing to work with the majority to pass legislation that would benefit my constituents.
One thing that campaigning really brought home to me is how much the Republican Party has changed since I left the party in 2017, let alone what it was like when I was in the state legislature. In those days I served alongside a large number of moderate, pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-labor, pro-education Republicans. Now they are all gone; there are no truly moderate Republicans left. Even the few current Republicans serving in Olympia who are comparatively moderate don’t trust public schools, which they call “government schools.” They are reflexively against spending more money on anything, whether it’s transportation or education or county governments. They are anti-civic; they just don’t trust any of the civic institutions. All they want to talk about are cultural issues like race, religion, guns, and abortion.
I wanted to run as a traditional moderate conservative of the kind I used to be, but you have to run as an independent now to do that. My views haven’t changed at all. But Ronald Reagan himself would never get through a Republican primary nowadays, since that kind of conservatism is so out of step with today’s MAGA variety. I don’t think it’s honest to say, “I’m a real Republican, and all the people who make up the GOP base today are fake Republicans.” That’s not how it works. If all of the activists in the Republican Party now believe a certain thing, then that’s the Republican Party.
Even though I was running as an independent, in most ways my campaign felt like a typical legislative bid. My team and I raised money and rang doorbells. We didn’t go to very many events, mostly because most events are sponsored by one party or the other. Nobody invited me to the Democratic Party picnic or the Republican Party dinner.
Most of the people whose doorbells I rang weren’t home, and most of the people who were home would just take the brochure and smile and say thank you. But I had hundreds of conversations. Some people came to the door and would say, “Are you…?” and they’d look at the brochure. I knew what they were looking for: party identification, and they’d turn the brochure over and over and try to figure out which party I was a member of. And I would say, “I’m neither. I’m an independent.” Some people would say, “You’re running against Fortunato, right? Great! I’m a Democrat. He’s crazy, and I’m with you.” And there was a small handful of people who’d say, “You’re that guy who left the Republican Party. Get out of here!” Well, at least they were informed voters.
But the most interesting conversations — and there were a lot of them — were the ones that would happen when I’d say, “I think both parties have lost their damn minds.” And most people would respond, “Oh yeah, I agree.” I ran into very few outright Trump apologists. Instead, the common reaction was something like, “Yeah, the Republicans have gone too far. But those damn Democrats are crazy!” And then they would just launch into how much they hated the Democrats.
These conversations were sort of a rolling focus group for me. And the main issue for those voters was always the same: crime, crime, crime. But I think the real issue was much broader: It was the left’s perceived permissiveness on the question of order versus disorder. The summer of the George Floyd riots left a real impact on voters in the Seattle suburbs. Night after night after night, people turned on their televisions and watched rioters smash windows and take over neighborhoods. I believe that at first most white suburbanites felt, “Oh, what the police did to that poor George Floyd was terrible.” But after a while it was just, “Enough! Go in there and stop this. It’s out of control!”
Crime is the Democrats’ biggest vulnerability in districts like mine. White suburban voters want law and order. They don’t want people getting away with shoplifting. Over and over again I’d talk to people who would say things like, “My catalytic converter got stolen out of my car in the driveway last night. My neighbor’s house got broken into. There’s graffiti and homeless people in tents in our neighborhood that never used to be there. I’ve bought a gun for the first time.” It was this sense of out-of-control disorder. And they were absolutely convinced that the Democrats didn’t care about it.
I also heard all the time from voters about how the Democrats had passed a series of bills to change police practices. They banned chokeholds. They banned the police from acquiring certain weapons. They banned the use of force in so-called Terry stops, where an officer can briefly detain a person on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity, short of arresting them. And the Democrats also banned police vehicle pursuit in most cases.
In the 2022 legislative session, the Democrats walked back some of those reforms in the face of heavy criticism, but not the restrictions on police pursuits, even though that’s one of the measures that police and prosecutors most strongly oppose. And there are now many people in Washington state who believe that if a cop tries to pull them over, they can just accelerate away and nothing will happen to them.
People I talked to were concerned about Republican attacks on democracy. They didn’t like Trump. They supported abortion rights. But all those issues are somewhat abstract and distant. Crime in your neighborhood, and a general sense that order is breaking down, is much more immediate. Democrats ignore this reality at their peril.
The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Washington, Tiffany Smiley, ran an ad in which she was standing in front of a Starbucks that had been closed because of crime. That is real. There are restaurants and stores closing in Seattle because every night their windows are smashed. Chinatown is dying because of crime. There is an area of Seattle around Third Avenue, just to the east of the Pike Place Market, where the county had to close the bus stops because they couldn’t protect the people standing there. Seattle has always had a bohemian element and some drug problems, but what has changed is that suburban people no longer feel safe going downtown for a nice dinner, or to see a play or opera, or to go to the Seahawks game.
Many Democrats dismiss public concerns about crime, claiming that they are exaggerated and amplified by right-wing media. But I heard about crime constantly from voters. And there is no doubt that the Democratic Party in Washington state has absolutely moved left on criminal justice and public safety issues, along with some other parts of the progressive agenda. It’s not just perception, it is reality. Democrats have seriously proposed legalizing all drugs. They created the first state-funded long-term care program. Democratic Governor Jay Inslee wants to ban the use of natural gas in homes as well as the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2030. And Washington Democrats continue to keep alive the idea of tearing down dams, which would upend the state’s economy. Not all of these ideas should be dismissed out of hand, but all of them put the party firmly to the left of the voters I met.
A lot of issues that were important in national campaigns didn’t really show up in my campaign, including climate change, culture war issues, Critical Race Theory in the schools, and gender identity. Climate change probably came up the most of those issues if I was talking to a liberal. Sometimes I would have conservatives come to the door and say, “Can you believe what they’re teaching kids in school these days?” and I’d respond, “Do you mean reading and math?” But those weren’t the main issues that people talked about. And since it was a state race, immigration didn’t really come up either.
Fortunato didn’t talk about those things either. He talked about guns and being pro-life and not raising taxes. And COVID-19 faded as an issue the longer the campaign went on. Washington had one of the lowest death rates in the nation because we were one of the most locked-down states. The conservatives lost their minds over it, and Fortunato was one of the leading voices saying, “This is fascism! I don’t have to wear a mask!” But that became less salient by November.
None of this would stop Democrats from gaining two seats in the state legislature this year. Democrats are in no danger in Washington state because the urban core can outvote the rest of the state. But that’s not true in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or anywhere else where national elections are actually decided. In those places, Democrats need the kind of voters I talked to this year.
The night before the election, I texted with one of the top consultants in the McMullin campaign. He wrote that he was certain that Evan was going to lose, because over time Republican voters came to see McMullin as just someone running against a Republican, and they wanted more Republicans in office to oppose President Biden.
And as the returns came in on Election Night, I could see that the same dynamic was going to defeat me. Despite what Republican voters told pollsters, in the end, in a Republican district, they simply voted for the Republican candidate. On top of that, fewer votes (and more write-in votes) were cast in my race than in the two state house races in our district, probably because several hundred Democrats chose either not to vote in my race, or to write in a Democrat, rather than vote for an independent. Partisanship prevailed over independence, just as it did in the other races involving independents.
I was disappointed, of course. Despite running what I think objective observers would agree was a strong campaign, I only received 44 percent of the vote. That was only two percentage points more than the two Democratic state house candidates in the district, who raised virtually no money and barely campaigned.
But what were the bigger lessons to be drawn from my campaign? That will be the subject of my next article.