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Does America Need a Third Party?

A $70 million effort is trying to put a third party on the 2024 presidential ballot. Meanwhile Democrats present a short target list, crime doesn't pay and more.

a graphic that has the political party logos on the sides and in the middle it says "No Labels. Not Left. Not Right. Forward"
(No Labels)
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Does America Need a Third Party?: No Labels is a centrist group that seeks to bring a moderate perspective to policy debates. Now it’s acting more like a bona fide political party. A $70 million effort to gain ballot access is bearing fruit, with No Labels qualifying for the 2024 presidential ballot line in four Western states so far – Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon.

There’s clearly an appetite for an alternative. A Gallup poll released last fall found that a majority of Americans agree that Democrats and Republicans "do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.” With most Americans living in states dominated either by Democrats or the GOP, the two main parties need a bit of “healthy competition,” said Andrew Yang, an erstwhile Democratic candidate for president and New York City mayor who founded the Forward Party in 2021.

“Bipartisanship is eroding,” Yang said during the 92nd Street Y’s recent State of America Summit. “The party primary system elevates the voices of folks who may not represent the mainstream.”

But if citizens are willing to tell pollsters they want a third party, they rarely are willing to vote for one. In 2016, when the presidential election featured two of the least popular major-party nominees, the overwhelming share of voters supported one of the two of them, notes Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist. “Even a reputable third-party candidate like Gary Johnson (a former governor) amassed little more than 3 percent of the vote,” Masket says.

In a highly polarized time – when people fear almost more than anything that a candidate from the other party will win – the idea that minor-party candidates can only act as spoilers has become deeply ingrained. Granted, some of that is self-serving messaging from the two major parties, which don’t like anything that challenges their duopoly.

The Democratic Party of Arizona announced a lawsuit last week to keep No Labels off the state ballot. On Monday, the Montana Senate voted to switch the U.S. Senate primary next year to a top-two system, with the goal of keeping a Libertarian candidate from taking potential votes away from the GOP candidate in the fall against vulnerable Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. But new parties such as United Utah, even when fielding credible candidates, have been unable to offer real competition or win seats.

Maybe things would change under, say, a nationwide ranked-choice voting system. But given polarization and plurality voting, a party such as No Labels can’t do anything right now other than act as a spoiler, Masket says. “Having just two viable choices for such an ideologically diverse country is inherently dissatisfying,” he says. “This complaint is perfectly fair, but adding more candidates won’t change this.”

Democrats Present a Short Target List: Republicans have controlled a majority of legislative seats and chambers ever since 2010. Democrats made some inroads last fall, picking up four chambers. But although that was a historic showing for the president’s party during a midterm, it wasn’t a huge number. For decades, a dozen legislative chambers routinely changed hands each election cycle, but the number actually in play these days is now much smaller than that.

That’s reflected in the list of chambers the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) has put on its priority list for this fall and 2024. “We know where the opportunities are and we’ll spend future cycles expanding our map,” Heather Williams, the DLCC’s interim president, said during a press call. “We must build on our momentum from 2022.”

There are only six chambers in four states that the DLCC lists as offensive targets: the Pennsylvania Senate, the Virginia House and both chambers in Arizona and New Hampshire. Granted, the GOP won’t have a large number of potential pickups, either. That shows how calcified the legislative map has become.

The DLCC’s list includes 17 chambers, but most involve defending chambers the party already holds, or blocking supermajorities in states where the Democratic minority is large enough to uphold vetoes.

Those are important goals – as was underscored on Wednesday, when North Carolina state Rep. Tricia Cotham switched to the GOP, giving that party supermajority control of both chambers and the potential to make life miserable for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Something similar happened last month in Louisiana, when state Rep. Francis Thompson’s switch gave Republicans supermajority control of the entire legislature.

Republicans now have veto-proof control of the entire legislature in 20 states. On Tuesday, a victory in a Wisconsin special election gave them a supermajority in the state Senate there.
Brandon Johnson
Brandon Johnon (TNS)
Crime Doesn’t Pay: Republicans continue to believe that Democrats are vulnerable on the crime issue. The results last November were mixed, but on Tuesday crime clearly wasn’t decisive in the biggest races.

Paul Vallas had centered his race for Chicago mayor squarely on the crime issue. It was enough for victory in the first round of voting, but not when it counted most. He lost on Tuesday to Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who said he’d pursue a more “holistic” approach to public safety by addressing root causes of crime, such as unemployment, while increasing mental health funding.

The night’s other marquee race also went to the more liberal candidate, with Janet Protasiewicz prevailing over Daniel Kelly, who lost a Wisconsin Supreme Court race for the second time in three years. The outcome means the balance of power on the court now swings to liberals, with major implications for issues such as redistricting.

It was the most expensive court contest in U.S. history, with total spending topping $45 million. Conservatives knocked Protasiewicz for being too lenient toward violent criminals. Abortion proved to be the more resonant issue for voters. Protasiewicz pledged that if she won the election, the court would revisit the state’s ban on abortion, which dates from 1849.

The Chicago race continued a trend seen in several recent mayoral elections, in which younger, more progressive candidates, often candidates of color, have prevailed over older, more conservative white candidates. The first round of voting for Denver mayor, however, points to a June runoff between two more moderate, white candidates – Kelly Brough, the president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and former state Sen. Mike Johnston. One of them will succeed Michael Hancock, the city’s second Black mayor, who is term-limited after three terms.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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