In Polarized America, Can a Middle Party Rise From the Ashes?

In Polarized America, Can a Middle Party Rise From the Ashes?

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right face off against counter protesters at the entrance to Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

SourceChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Why you should care

Because it could shake up the political playing field for 2018 — and 2020.

Protruding like a hitchhiker’s thumb into Canada’s underbelly, Maine has long been an outlier in American politics. Two of its governors in recent decades were Independents, and the sitting state treasurer is vying to be the third. In Obamacare repeal dissenter Susan Collins, it sends one of the only truly moderate Republicans to the U.S. Senate. It publicly funds political campaigns to lessen donors’ influence. Last year, Mainers voted to change their electoral system in a way that is likely to boost third-party candidates. “We’ve always done things a little differently,” says Kyle Bailey, who helped lead Maine’s “ranked choice” voting reform movement. “We’ve always been willing to look for common-sense solutions and not be boxed into politics.”

The Pine Tree State is among a handful of laboratories for an independent centrist movement searching for traction in 2018 by building a fundraising base and a campaign-talent pipeline. Backers take heart in the 57 percent of Gallup respondents who said they want a third party. They look to France, where Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a legislative majority with a party that he founded just last year. Their goal is to field legislative candidates and U.S. Senate hopefuls who could form a critical swing-vote mass in their chambers.

If we had a shirt around here, you would see Teddy Roosevelt on it.

Nick Troiano, executive director, The Centrist Project

“The most important thing our strategy is oriented around in 2018 is winning elections,” says Nick Troiano, 28, executive director of the Centrist Project. “That is what it will take to change perceptions from ‘an Independent sounds nice’ to ‘an Independent can win.’” Troiano hastens to emphasize that the project is not an official political party — nor does it intend to become one.

In August the Centrist Project held a gathering in Philadelphia featuring Maine treasurer Terry Hayes, former Kansas U.S. Senate candidate Greg Orman and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker. They hope to capture Democrats troubled by the party’s leftward shift and Republicans turned off by Donald Trump. But just because voters don’t like the parties doesn’t mean they’re crying out for centrists: A 2014 Pew report found the share of Americans who demonstrated consistently liberal or conservative viewpoints doubled over the past two decades — and self-reinforcing media consumption has only accelerated.

The Centrist Project is based in Denver, where it sees an opportunity in the closely split Colorado legislature. When OZY pays a visit to its cramped offices, American flags are strapped to lamps and a couple of copies of Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan’s The Centrist Manifesto — the group’s founding document — are lying around. There is no sign of the Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan swag you’d find in Democratic or Republican headquarters. “If we had a shirt around here, you would see Teddy Roosevelt on it,” Troiano says. “He was a progressive Republican. He believed in business and was pro-environment. More than anything else, he was a reformer. And his third-party run in 1912 helped catalyze the Progressive Party.”

But even Roosevelt lost in 1912, and finding strong candidates to take this risk is not easy. (In 2014 Troiano ran for Congress himself in Pennsylvania as an Independent; he got 12.6 percent of the vote.) Troiano says he expects a handful of legislative candidates in Colorado, but no one has gone public yet. The group is similarly looking for U.S. Senate challengers in Utah and Wyoming — where campaigns are inexpensive, voters have an independent streak and the GOP incumbents rarely face a tough fight.

The Centrist Project is hardly the first initiative to find a new middle ground. It’s not even Troiano’s first: He worked for Unity08 and Americans Elect, failed efforts to form bipartisan presidential tickets. Troiano says the difference now is a focus on the state level before possibly going national in 2020 — when an unpopular incumbent president could provide an opening.

Troiano seeks lessons from France; a campaign strategist for Macron’s En Marche! party spoke to the centrists’ Philadelphia gathering. But the comparison is a stretch. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is skeptical of a new third party. “France was and is in much worse economic shape than the U.S., and its unemployment rate is quite high,” Sabato says. “Corruption has also been endemic and affected all the major parties in various ways. If things get much worse in America, I suppose it’s possible for a Macron to happen here, but again, I wouldn’t take out a second mortgage in anticipation of it.”

For now, the Centrist Project concentrates on incremental steps rather than a France-style tsunami. Maine provides a compelling test case. The nation’s first “ranked choice” voting system — in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, producing instant runoffs when the lowest-scoring ones are eliminated — will allow third-party hopefuls to compete as more than spoilers, as voters can support a major party as a backup. (The process remains subject to court challenge, though.)

The Maine House already finds itself in the Centrist Project’s dream scenario: After two state House members left the party in May, Democrats no longer have a pure party-line majority. The duo are liberal, so there’s no real ideological shift, but there was a new political dynamic during contentious budget negotiations. “They didn’t feel compelled to vote one way or the other simply because the party told them how they should be voting,” says Bailey, the head of Maine Independents, a partner of the Centrist Project. If his group can add a couple independent moderates to the state’s House and Senate, he says, it would “create a safe space for moderates in both parties.” The question remains whether polarized voters will seek out the middle ground.

Reporter Nick Fouriezos contributed.

This story has been updated to reflect that the Centrist Project does not intend to become a new political party.

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