Wild Cards Create Wild Scenarios in Congressional Races

by Stuart Rothenberg October 6, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

While third-party and Independent candidates for president remain largely irrelevant to the battle between Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), three nontraditional candidates in other races are proving to be more important.

In Minnesota, former Sen. Dean Barkley, running as the Independence Party’s nominee, is receiving almost one in five votes in the state’s Senate race, according to at least one unreleased survey.

In Louisiana’s 6th district, African- American state Rep. Michael Jackson (D), who is running for Congress as an Independent, could affect the outcome. And in Florida’s 13th district, Independent Jan Schneider remains a problem for Democrat Christine Jennings in her effort to defeat Rep. Vern Buchanan (R).

Barkley, who served very briefly in the Senate when he was appointed by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura (I), is benefiting from the increasing bitterness in the race between the two major party nominees, incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and comedian/satirist-turned-political-hopeful Al Franken (D).

Franken and his allies have painted Coleman as a junket-taking ally of President Bush who is close to “Big Oil.” Coleman and his allies have argued that Franken is a crude loudmouth who has failed to pay his taxes and doesn’t have the temperament to be in the Senate.

Through Aug. 20 (in their pre-primary reports), Coleman had raised more than $12 million and spent $8.5 million, while Franken had raised $13 million and spent $10.7 million. Barkley, in contrast, had raised $14,374 and spent $9,302.

None of those figures, of course, include independent expenditures from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other outside groups that are spending money on behalf of one of the major-party candidates.

Barkley is benefiting from the same phenomenon that helped Alice Kryzan win the Democratic primary in New York’s 26th district last month and Carol Moseley Braun win the Democratic Senate nomination in Illinois in 1992: voter revulsion from two candidates engaging in heavily negative campaigns.

While Barkley isn’t running the kind of full-scale campaign that would ordinarily get him much traction, he’s receiving plenty of “none of the above” votes from Minnesotans who are tired of the personal attacks coming from Coleman and Franken.

While this normally would benefit Coleman, since most elections are referendums on the incumbent and having two or more alternatives to the incumbent thereby divides the anti-incumbent vote, Barkley is doing so well that he must be taking votes away from both men.

I have long had doubts as to whether Franken could win the votes of a majority of Minnesota voters because of his controversial history. But Barkley’s strong showing means that the Democrat may be able to win the Senate race with as little as 40 percent of the vote, a number that does not seem unattainable for Franken.

Some Democratic operatives have been considering whether it might be necessary for Franken, or more likely the DSCC, to attack Barkley to try to pull liberal (or at least anti-Coleman) voters away from the Independence Party nominee.

But that’s a risky strategy that could, in theory, benefit Coleman, and it would seem less likely if Coleman and Franken are locked in a very tight race in the final weeks of the election campaign.

Barkley isn’t likely to win the Minnesota Senate race in November, no matter how nasty the race gets, but the two major-party candidates will need to try to figure out whether, and how, to deal with him as Election Day approaches.

In the Louisiana race, a recent poll shows Democratic Rep. Don Cazayoux holding a comfortable lead over state Sen. Bill Cassidy (R) and Independent Jackson, who was drawing just 9 percent of the vote.

But many observers doubt that Cazayoux will retain such a big lead in a Republican-leaning district, and they expect that his campaign, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, may have to take steps to keep African-American voters, who outnumber white Democrats in the district, to stick with Cazayoux rather than vote for Jackson.

Like Barkley, Jackson hasn’t raised or spent much money. As of Aug. 17, Jackson had just $12,603 in the bank after raising $132,950. But every vote Jackson wins is a vote he has taken from Cazayoux, and Democratic insiders have already considered whether they need presidential nominee Obama to make an explicit appeal to the district’s black voters to stick with Democratic nominee Cazayoux rather than backing Jackson (Obama has already endorsed Cazayoux).

In Florida, Schneider is also short of cash. But she has run three times, in 2002 and 2004 as the Democratic nominee for Congress, and she drew a respectable 38 percent of the vote in an unsuccessful 2006 Democratic primary race against Jennings.

Just as important, Schneider recently told a local newspaper that she would put $100,000 of her own money behind her bid in the next few weeks.

By the time Election Day rolls around, it’s possible that these third-party candidates will have faded into oblivion. But it’s more likely that they will continue to give at least one major-party candidate in each race heartburn, and they could well affect major-party strategies going down to the wire.