Peter Hutchinson is a long way from a professional wrestler. He looks the part of the former finance commissioner and school superintendent that he is, slender with glasses and button-down shirts. But he’s campaigning to retrace baldheaded Jesse Ventura’s journey into the Minnesota governor’s mansion.
Others are making similar longshot runs for office. In Maine, two candidates from outside the major parties are attacking the status quo. In Texas, two independent candidates are grabbing double-digit support.
“People are really fed up with politics as usual. They think it’s fundamentally broken,” said Hutchinson, quick with one-liners and sharp at debates.
Voters, he said, are sick of politicians and their promises. “What they say to me is, ‘They think we’re dumb.”‘
None of these third-party and independent candidates seems to have much chance of winning so far. But in a handful of gubernatorial races they’re generating enough interest to potentially tip the election.
Some politicians look at this year’s crop of independent candidates and see dismay with today’s political scene. Others look at the scant number in the group, and the relatively paltry support they’re getting, and conclude that voters see the major parties as a good option this election cycle.
“Despite expressed dissatisfaction with politicians and the two-party system in the polls, we don’t find a plethora of third-party candidates either running or having a chance,” said L. Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College in Maine. “And those you do find are kind of jokes, like Kinky Friedman [in Texas].”
Friedman might be funny – he’s a musician, comedian and author – but he’s also drawing 14 percent of likely voters, according to a poll conducted for The Dallas Morning News.
That’s almost the same as Democrat Chris Bell (15 percent) and another independent, Carole Keeton Strayhorn (18 percent). All hope to unseat GOP Gov. Rick Perry.
So far, the dynamics of that race have the independents countering each other, with Perry drawing 38 percent of likely voters, even though the same poll found nearly two-thirds of likely voters want Perry to lose.
. In Minnesota, Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson’s support in pre-election polls ranges from 5 percent to 9 percent. Not anywhere near enough to win, but enough to swing a close election, with polls showing a dead heat between GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democrat Mike Hatch.
. In Maine, the state’s public financing system is providing up to $1.2 million to both independent candidate Barbara Merrill and Maine Green Independent Party candidate Pat LaMarche. Analysts say the pair are part of the reason there’s a close race between Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and GOP nominee Chandler Woodcock.
“Any vote they are taking would’ve been going to Baldacci,” Maisel said. “I think they’re having a big effect.” No recent polls have tracked the race.
Laws vary by state, but in general, third-party candidates are nominated by a party guaranteed a spot on the ballot because it won enough votes in previous elections. Independent candidates get on the ballot by gathering a required amount of signatures, and don’t have to be aligned with a party.
Other states have close races where, in theory, a nonmajor party candidate could play a role, though few candidates so far are getting enough attention or support to make a difference. They include Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Many other states have outsider candidates on the ballot who are getting scant support. Actor Malachy McCourt is running as the Green Party candidate for governor in New York, while Christy Mihos, a millionaire convenience store owner, is an independent in Massachusetts.
And then there’s Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, running strong as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to an anti-war candidate.
In Minnesota, Hutchinson is convinced that there’s an opening for his campaign, with voters disgusted by partisan gridlock in his state and with larger national failures in Congress.
“The national stuff’s having a huge effect, because it’s reinforcing everyone’s worst nightmare,” he said.
His top issue is mandating health insurance and cutting health costs, though he also wants to expand all-day kindergarten, improve energy conservation and expand use of renewable fuels.
His Independence Party is the same organization that propelled Ventura into office, though it was then called the Reform Party.
Hutchinson says his support is growing and predicts it will peak on Nov. 7, with a victory just like Ventura had in 1998. The others talk of similar come-from-behind strategies, though observers are doubtful.
“I don’t see any races this year that are likely to succeed, to be frank about it,” said David Gillespie, author of “Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America.”
“What’s interesting about this year is so many columnists now are writing about [a] party of the center,” he said. “But it has yet to be formed.”
He says voters may feel burned after Ralph Nader in 2000 and Ross Perot in 1992. Both ran third-party campaigns that challenged the two-party system and both have been tagged, arguably, as “spoilers” that gave victories to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively.
Others say that voters are going back to the two main parties during a polarized election year. Walter Stone, political science professor at University of California, Davis, says it’s hard to argue that Democrats and Republicans are no different after the Bush administration has had six years to establish a track record, including the war in Iraq.
“As the parties move to their base, the public gets more and more fed up,” said Angus King, an independent who served two terms as governor in Maine. “It creates an opening in the middle.”