In the alternative universe of politics, Capitol Hill should be preparing to greet Matt Funiciello, who on paper and in deed was well-positioned to have won an open House seat in upstate New York. Funiciello was endorsed by the local newspapers, widely acclaimed as being the most in touch with voters, the only one who offered concrete ideas on current vexing isssues and, amazingly, the only one of the candidates who truly lived in the district.
"We think he is both the most talented person for the job and the most committed to serving the people of the district rather than big campaign donors," one newspaper wrote. "We believe he would be more likely than his opponents to put district residents first, and he has convinced us he would fight hard and effectively for their interests if elected."
Funiciello, a baker, even received more votes than what pre-election polls indicated. Yet he did not win because of one factor: Funiciello is not a Democrat or Republican; he was the Green Party candidate.
So does Funiciello's loss matter to Congress? Yes, it does.
With one party securing an almost historical lock on Congress of any party in decades and a lame-duck president of the other party, a potent way to find breakthroughs would be from new members coming with unabashed idealism and cutting-edge ideas — the epitome of most third party and independent candidates.
Democrats and Republicans could benefit from a few Funiciellos as prisms for new ideas, bridges to compromises and easy fall guys if need be. Those are valuable roles missing from today's deepening, decimating gridlock.
History shows that third parties have been very good for the country in calling attention to otherwise ignored, misrepresented or suppressed issues. Third-party candidates triggered action on Social Security, women's suffrage, child labor laws, crime, civil rights, union representation, immigration restrictions and the 40-hour workweek. Our nation today faces deepening fiscal woes, yet who was the last person to truly rally Americans to this danger and galvanize debate? Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992.
A breakthrough seemed possible this year. Public discontent is high. Partisanship has snarled politics worse than ever. Before the election, Ballot Access News reported results of a Gallup Poll showing that 58 percent of respondents thought a new major party would be helpful.
And there were candidates like Funiciello who had wider appeal beyond ideologues and the "anyone-but-above" voters.
Yet despite the disdain, the major parties cannot be dislodged. In fact, this Election Day, Americans cast fewer votes for independent or third-party candidates for senator and governor than in any other midterm election since 1998.
"Part of the reason is the ballot access problem," says Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. "Twenty-two percent of the voters saw only Democrats and Republicans on their ballot for the top office."
Third-party activists agree.
"I think because we have made a viable third party option such an uphill battle, we instead have parties within parties," says Rachel Mills, a prominent libertarian in North Carolina. "The GOP is splintered right now; there is the establishment, the Tea Party and the liberty wings all vying for a foothold."
One silver lining is that many third-party candidates this year were not just dismissed as spoilers, which is a huge stigma often faced.
For example, in the Kansas Senate race, businessman Greg Orman, running as an independent, was close in the polls against three-term incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R) — so close that the Democratic candidate dropped out so he would not be a spoiler. The GOP focused on the race and Roberts won 53 to 42 percent. An Orman victory would have put three independents in the Senate for the first time in history.
Funiciello won 11 percent of the vote, just above the 10 percent he showed in polls in New York's 21st District open-seat race between Democrat Aaron Woolf and Republican Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikWyoming county GOP rejects effort to rescind Cheney's party status Stefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' GOP leader taking proxy voting fight to Supreme Court MORE. Stefanik won the election with 53 percent of votes, with Woolf getting 32 percent.
Green Party candidate Paula Bradshaw got 5.6 percent of the vote in Illinois's 12th District, in a competitive race between incumbent Democrat Bill Enyart and GOP candidate Mike BostMichael (Mike) J. BostMORE. Bost won with 52.9 percent, but Bradshaw's 5.6 percent put Greens on the ballot for future races without being a spoiler.
The best House race showing was in Pennsylvania's 10th District, where independent Nick Troiano won 12.7 percent. He placed third behind incumbent Republican Tom MarinoThomas (Tom) Anthony MarinoWhy the North Carolina special election has national implications The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Republican wins special House election in Pennsylvania MORE, reelected with 62.5 percent, and Democrat Scott Brion, who received 23.8 percent.
Troiano said his candidacy put pressure on his opponents to run more substantive campaigns and compete for voters in the center and that, for the first time, the incumbent participated in a debate.
"Because of our effort, the incumbent now knows there is a sizable share of his constituency that expects a great effort toward problem solving rather than point scoring," Troiano said. "This constituency has never been organized before, so it has never had a way of expressing itself electorally. I was the first independent candidate that nearly all of these voters have ever supported. So this is really just the beginning; if neither party responds by changing their behavior, this constituency will only grow more powerful."
Good start. Now get to Capitol Hill.
Squitieri is an award-winning reporter and communications veteran and an adjunct professor at Washington and Jefferson College.