In 2009, many pundits speculated the Tea Party would become a third political party. Rasmussen even did a poll showing the Tea Party beating the GOP in a generic ballot race. Glenn Beck was spoiling for a third party throughout the year.
So far, 2010 has been a year of political upheaval. Conservative favorites have enjoyed uncommon success, including Mike Lee, retiring three-term U.S. Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT), Trey Gowdy’s defeat of Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC), the defeat of Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) at the hands of conservative Joe Miller, and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del) being defeated by Christine O’Donnell. Consider also the rise of Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Nikki Haley. Yet something funny happened on the way to the revolution. Third-party efforts have had no role in conservative and Tea Party triumphs this year.
The two-party system is a popular scapegoat among those who feel disenfranchised. Yet 2010 shows that our two-party system works. Disenchanted conservatives have rediscovered they have the power to change a political party if they commit themselves to the process.
They are addressing their concerns by actively campaigning in Republican primaries for candidates who support their ideals. Tea Party activists, working through the GOP, have accomplished far more for the cause of liberty than the Constitution and Libertarian Parties have in their combined fifty-six years of existence, and we’re not even to the general election yet.
That said, not every conservative candidate has met with success, including J.D. Hayworth in the Arizona Senate race and Debra Medina in the Texas governor’s race. This is as it should be.
Primary and caucus voters are quality control for our political process. They judge whether a candidate has the necessary combination of judgment, qualifications, and values to win in the general election, and thus they hold back candidates who they judge as not being ready. Also, as these voters tend to pay more attention, they are more likely to spot when a politician, like a jug of milk, has reached their expiration date as some politicians have already been reminded.
Third parties and independent candidacies, far from being a boon for conservatives, have been a bane, or at least an annoyance. The most prominent third-party candidates in America are Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who left the GOP after it became clear he’d lose the Republican primary in the Florida Senate race; Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is now in the news for her sore loser write-in bid to keep her Senate seat; and former Republican U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, who is running for governor of Rhode Island.
Contrary to the vision of successful independent candidates as virtuous outsiders, the well-performing third-party candidates have generally been career politicians like Senator Joe Lieberman (CT) and Governors Walter Hickel (AK) and Lowell Weicker (CT). Celebrity Governor Jesse Ventura is a noted exception.
The unhinged and unserious third-party candidates also end up having a supersized role in an election. A key example is the Alaska Senate race. After initial results found Murkowski trailing, analysts decided the only way she could end up on the ballot in the fall was if the Libertarian Party candidate stepped aside so the state Libertarian Party could nominate Murkowski. A blogger e-mailed Frederick “David” Haase and got a bizarre response replete with absurd grammatical errors and a large rambling document he expected Murkowski to agree with in order for him to step aside for Murkowski.
Haase is reminiscent of former Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Basil Marceaux, whose surreal and bizarre ramblings made him an internet sensation and landed him an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The difference is, while Marceaux got half a percent in the Republican primary, Haase ended up with his party’s nomination, a result of the typical poor vetting of third-party candidates.
Advocates of third parties might point out that while minor parties attract the political fringe, major parties attract special interest influence and political opportunists. This may be true, but these are not problems a third party could solve. The prospect of a third major party calls to mind the old Bill Cosby line, “The only reason I don’t break you in two is I don’t want two of you running around.” If America attained a third major party, it would not be long before it was besieged with unprincipled politicos and the undue influence that comes with being able to help people get power.
As 2010 teaches us, we don’t need a third political party. We need vigilant and engaged citizens to fight for their values, and candidates who will share them in the major parties. Tea Party activists have had major influence on this year’s elections because they were smarter than their critics gave them credit for and wiser than some of the loudest voices among them.
They have shown that what third parties promise can be accomplished by working through the two-party system. If conservatives can learn this lesson from 2010, they can avoid being roped into self-defeating third-party schemes.