Two Independents could be the key to the next Congress
The following is a guest post by Joshua Spivak, a lawyer and a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.
With Republicans making a serious push to take over the Senate in November, a rare but important development may prove to be the key to the post-2010 Congressional landscape: the Senate may feature two elected members not beholden to the major parties — Independent s Joseph Lieberman and Charlie Crist.
In a closely divided Senate, having two Independents could play an outsized role as powerbrokers and creators of a moderate bloc. It would also be only the second time since World War II that two Independents occupied the Senate.
Successful Independents are very rare in high-level American legislative politics. Instead, they have been much more successful in winning gubernatorial races despite the fact that the Senate has twice as many seats available. In the last two decades alone, Minnesota, Maine, Alaska and Connecticut have all elected Independents. In the 2010 elections, there are at least three serious Independent gubernatorial contenders.
While there have been a number of Independent Senators in recent years, only Vermont’s James Jeffords was able to have any real impact, thanks to switching control of the chamber when he moved from the Republican side of the aisle. Nearly all of these Independent s have been men who left their previous party during midterms in a huff, either for personal pique or for political purposes. These senators then either quickly align with the opposition party.
Most importantly, though, none succeeded in winning re-election as an Independent. One of them, Robert Smith of New Hampshire, quickly went back to the Republican Party after being defeated in a primary election for his apostasy. The only other time that two non-major party candidates were elected was in 1970. Harry Byrd Jr., formerly a Democrat, was elected as a senator of Virginia and conservative James Buckley became a New York senator. But both wound up closely aligned with one party or the other, and neither were important figures in the Senate.
There are two notable exceptions to the dearth of elected Independents, and both won office in 2006. One is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, but is clearly a member of the Democratic Caucus. In fact, in his 2006 election campaign he won the Democratic nomination, but then declined it. So the party left the spot blank, which only helped to ensure Sanders’ election.
The other exception is Lieberman, who claims to be an Independent Democrat and officially caucuses with the party, but is actually more of a true Independent figure. This coming term, he could have company from Florida’s Charlie Crist.
Lieberman and Crist will have been elected under mirror image circumstances. Both are key political figures in their state who have triumphed before in state-wide races. Lieberman lost the Democratic nomination in 2006 to Ned Lamont only to win the general election on an Independent ballot line, being carried to victory on the strength of a coalition of some of his historic voter base and Republicans.
Crist, who dropped out of his primary facing an all-but-certain humiliation at the hands of conservative hero Marco Rubio, needs a similar coalition of his base plus Democrats to pull off his seemingly improbable victory. According to the latest polls, it is looking good for Crist, as he leads in the three-man race set-ups.
What will this mean for the Senate? Crist will probably want to caucus with one of the parties, most likely the Democrats, in order to gain seniority in the committee system. However, he still would need to prove his Independent status to keep intact the coalition of moderates that elected him.
So too with Lieberman. Though he is an established politician and 22-year incumbent, Lieberman might have good reason to want to join Crist in developing a moderate bloc in the Senate. After permanently enraging a large swath of Connecticut Democrats, probably enough to deny him the party’s nomination in a primary, he will once again need to walk a fine line in revitalizing his winning coalition in a 2012 re-election campaign.
Lieberman must appeal to his base of moderate Democrats while at the same time scaring off serious Republican challengers who could split the vote. Perhaps the best way to do this would be to join forces with Crist in a moderate bloc in the middle. The two Independents could leverage their potential swing votes, especially if the Senate is close to being evenly split. If they are able to corral some of the moderates in both parties into their coalition, they may be able to make progress in defeating filibusters, the key task facing anyone wanting to advance legislation the Senate.
Having two Independents elected to the Senate will certainly be a noted rarity. If Crist wins office in November, and the Republicans succeed in making big gains in the Upper House, these two non-affiliated senators could become the key to success in the next Congress.