Independents Crowd Governor-Race Landscape

About a dozen candidates hope the path through the middle is the way to top state offices.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker
AP Photo/Becky Bohrer
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Dec. 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

Bill Walker may have the most complicated reelection path of any incumbent in America.

The Alaskan is seeking a second term as the nation’s only independent governor after spending his first managing a fiscal crisis. But unlike in 2014, when he was backed by Democrats, Walker may get a Democratic opponent to go along with a Republican challenger.

While Walker’s situation is unique, he is just one of many candidates who have dropped party affiliations to run for governor next year in hopes of capitalizing on voter frustration with the two major parties.

“It is a strong cycle for independents who are seeking governorships around the country,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of the Centrist Project, which backs independent candidates.

Former Republican business leader Oz Griebel launched an independent campaign in Connecticut this week with a Democratic running mate who has advocated gun control after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. Bob Krist and Noah Dyer are running nonpartisan campaigns against Republican incumbents in Nebraska and Arizona. And attorney John Morgan and Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether are considering bids for open seats in Florida and South Dakota after both left the Democratic Party.

Greg Orman, who challenged Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas as an independent in 2014, opened an exploratory committee this month to run for governor. In his 2016 book, A Declaration of Independents, the businessman wrote that term-limited Gov. Sam Brownback created “a vacuum in the political center.” He said he’s spoken to “dozens of potential [independent] candidates,” some who planned to run in state capitals.

“Make no mistake: It is exceedingly difficult to win U.S. political office as an Independent,” Orman wrote, while emphasizing the importance of challenging “the political duopoly.”

Maine Treasurer Terry Hayes aims to be America’s first female independent governor if she replaces term-limited Gov. Paul LePage. No governor there in the last 40 years has won a majority of the vote in his first election. The state’s last independent governor, Angus King, will seek reelection as an independent senator in 2018.

Independents can struggle financially, but Hayes said the state’s public-funding system allows her to compete. The former state representative and field staffer for 2014 independent candidate Eliot Cutler touted the idea that she isn’t limited to “targeting to a core base” as she avoids both primaries, whose ranks have swelled to more than a dozen candidates combined.

Hayes could also face former state Sen. John Jenkins and local comedian Karmo Sanders, who are running as independents. Alan Caron, a former newspaper columnist and author, said Tuesday he is not pursuing public funding in his own independent bid and instead could partly self-fund as he pursues “the middle” of the electorate. In an inverse of the typical concerns about independents as “spoilers,” the former “John F. Kennedy Democrat” called on the eventual Democratic nominee—if he or she is not viable—to “get out and throw their support to me if they’re concerned about a Republican winning.”

In Rhode Island, teachers’ union chief Robert Walsh said last week he was “thinking about” joining former Republican state Rep. Joe Trillo in launching independent campaigns to unseat Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo. The state’s last independent governor, Lincoln Chafee, is also considering a primary challenge to Raimondo, whom Republicans label “the most vulnerable” Democratic governor next year.

Not all states are as welcoming to non-major-party contenders. Filmmaker Brent Roske said in an interview that he hoped his candidacy in Iowa would “help improve the process of American democracy” but conceded that the site of the first-in-the-nation caucuses is dominated by “party politics.” He also bemoaned his absence from a recent Des Moines Register poll.

“Sometimes I really marvel at how creative they are about keeping an independent candidate out of the conversation,” Roske said.

In Alaska, Walker gave the GOP one of its few high-profile losses in 2014 when he unseated Gov. Sean Parnell on a unity ticket with the Democratic nominee. Republicans next year will choose from an amorphous field of Juneau legislators and businessmen to challenge the unpopular incumbent.

But Democrats’ plans there are less clear. Alaska Democratic Party Executive Director Jay Parmley said the party still plans to back whoever wins its Aug. 21 primary despite having supported Walker three years ago. But he said the fact that there have been discussions “with at least two or three Democrats” is “not to be construed as we’re actively searching for a candidate against” Walker.

Complicating matters further, the Alaska Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on a lower court’s decision to allow independents to seek the Democratic nomination. In an interview Wednesday, Walker didn’t rule out doing just that but noted he has filed as an independent candidate. Parmley said Democrats sought the initial ruling outside of the governor’s own deliberations.

Walker, a former Republican, conceded that “a more traditional, partisan” campaign “perhaps would be easier” for him and Democratic Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. But, he said, “We’ll stay the course and see how the voters feel about our … combined bipartisan administration.”

Another reelection hiccup would arise if former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who was unseated in 2014, enters the race. Begich criticized Walker’s cuts to the state’s permanent dividend in an interview at a conference of moderate Democrats last month in Washington and said Walker has “struggled to get things done” on the North Slope oil pipeline, despite a new memorandum of understanding with Chinese stakeholders.

Democratic state Sen. Bill Wielechowski also said he was “considering” running against Walker to challenge his proposed fiscal reforms but would defer to Begich, whom he said “would be a great governor.”

Troiano said the Centrist Project has endorsed Walker and Hayes, is “keeping a close eye” on Orman and Krist, and has more candidates on its radar. With filing deadlines for unaffiliated candidates coming later than those for primaries, he said the “movement” of independent candidates with a “viable pathway” could spur recruiting.

“Broadly, the people who seek the chief-executive role are people who are doers and problem-solvers and want to get things done,” Troiano said. “And that’s also the type of profile that lends itself to being an independent.”

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