Independents — wave of future?
© Getty Images, The Hill

As Americans sour on partisan sniping this election cycles, many are turning towards independent candidates as a better option. 

Now, with viable independents playing a role in two major races, it’s a shift that might have seismic consequences in the battle for the Senate this fall and beyond.

ADVERTISEMENT

Independents could serve as spoilers for Republicans in Kansas and South Dakota, seats that were supposed to be easy pickups for the GOP but have come on the map due to the Republican candidates' surprising weakness in both races. If the independent alternatives win, they could hold the key to control of the Senate, wielding outsize influence for their states by parlaying their caucus commitments into plum committee posts or commitments on votes for key issues.

It’s is indicative of a broader trend in American politics that's not confined to any one race or candidate, strategists and analysts say, and it's a movements that's only likely to grow in the coming years.

The parties are the "the old model for politics," said Crystal Canney, formerly campaign spokeswoman for independent Maine Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingDems slam Trump’s energy regulator nominee GOP nerves on edge after Sinema takes lead over McSally Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel MORE's successful 2012 bid. “And you're going to see an increase in independents across the country going forward,” she said.

Independents, it seems, are the wave of the future.

They're harnessing Americans' disillusionment with the parties, who are viewed increasingly poorly and as largely ineffective in voters' minds.

Every few weeks, Republican leaders are asked to answer for another off-color comment by a GOP lawmaker at the state or federal level. And the growing perception of President Obama as weak on domestic and foreign policy has tarred the Democratic Party by proxy.

Susan Boardman Russ, who served as chief of staff to former independent Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.), said she knows many Democrats and Republicans who simply won't identify with a party because of its reputation. 

"It's more politically correct, they don’t want to be labeled with all Republicans who say crazy things, and truly Democrats, they're kind of discouraged with Obama. So they tend to identify themselves with independents," she said.

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political professor and elections expert, has done studies that indicate another aspect prompting the rise of independent candidates is the increasing polarization of the parties.

"You can see in the data, when two parties become more ideologically distinct from each other, you see a greater success rate for independent candidates," he said. "These are moderates who are in the middle."

Indeed, while the parties have become more partisan over time, the Gallup tracking poll most recently showed those identifying as independents hit a record-high 47 percent in September.

That same survey also showed that when independents were asked which party they lean towards, more chose the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. That’s an indication more Republicans are dissatisfied with their party than Democrats, so they’re turning to independents as an answer.

That may be why this cycle independents are picking up traction in two deep-red states, McDonald suggested.

"In recent election cycles, the Republican Party gets polarized further than the Democratic Party" due to contentious primary fights, he noted. "So there are more moderate Republican voters who find themselves disaffected from the Republican Party."

McDonald suggested if that partisanship subsides and moderation again takes hold in the parties, Americans may return to being card-carrying party members.

But it's difficult to see such a shift back to the center taking hold in the near future. And Boardman Russ said that the exodus from the parties may be as much caused by systemic and cultural changes in American politics, that are unlikely to be reversed.

Decades ago, she noted, "being part of a party was part of your social network, it was a family thing," and politics was more of a communal activity, with partisans gathering for social events like Republican bean suppers and Democratic chicken dinners.

"That just doesn't fit into the world anymore, so people don’t have that from-birth-to-death identification with the core of a party," said Boardman Russ. 

The decline of the party has also given independents a structural opening to mount credible campaigns. With the rising influence of deep-pocketed outside groups, and a wide range of media options for candidates to get their messages out, independents aren't hindered as much by a lack of party apparatus or money.

And if Americans are experiencing an inexorable march away from the parties and towards independents, the workings of Congress may see a transformation too.

Neither Kansas independent Greg Orman nor South Dakota independent Larry Pressler, who are both competitive with their Republican opponents in recent polling, have indicated who they'd caucus with if they're elected.

But if they both win, they could join with the other two independents in the Senate — Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAs Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural Entrepreneur touts big solutions, endorsements in discussing presidential bid Warren, 2020 Dems target private immigration detention center operators MORE of Vermont and Angus King of Maine — to create an independent caucus that could hold immense power and influence over contentious policy negotiations, and perhaps help break through the gridlock in Washington.

Boardman Russ compared the potential independent caucus to the former "Mod Squad" group of five senators — which included Jeffords, Olympia Snowe and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMcConnell, Flake clash over protecting Mueller probe Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Border deployment 'peaked' at 5,800 troops | Trump sanctions 17 Saudis over Khashoggi killing | Senators offer bill to press Trump on Saudis | Paul effort to block Bahrain arms sale fails Senators introduce bill to respond to Khashoggi killing MORE of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. They became extremely powerful by holding out their votes in a bloc to win concessions and broker compromises — and ultimately encourage a culture of compromise in the Senate.

"If one side was not cooperating, they would vote the other way just to make the point. They tended to go with the side that seemed to be making the biggest effort to forge some type of compromise," she said.

That's exactly how Pressler thinks he and other independents would affect Senate business if he's elected this fall.

"It may be a historic time in American politics. If there could be an independent caucus — I mean we'd still have to caucus with whichever side we chose to — but that could be a group that could work to end the poisonous disputes between Republicans and Democrats," the former GOP senator told The Hill in an interview this week. 

Pressler also suggested the four could make up a core of a 20-senator "centrist caucus," which could further help negotiate compromises on key debates and get policies moving in the Senate.

That possibility, that independents could work above the fray to actually get things done, is part of both Pressler and Orman's sales pitch to voters. It’ something, Canney said, that voters are craving at a time of unprecedented partisan bickering.

“People as a whole are paying attention to what has happened with gridlock in their state and in Washington, across the country,” she said.

“They’re really, really tired of hearing, ‘I can’t get it done because of the other side.’ So there’s a growing number of people who say, I don't care about that stuff. Just get it done.”