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Commentary: A third party can emerge in California. Here’s a path

Commentary: A third party can emerge in California. Here’s a path

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Dan Schnur

Dan Schnur, a former Republican, announces his independent candidacy for Secretary of State, ultimately unsuccessful, during a news conference in Sacramento, Friday Jan. 10, 2014. Schnur, who was an aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson and is currently director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute at the University of Southern California.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

When I ran for Secretary of State four years ago as California’s first no-party-preference (NPP) candidate for statewide office, there were a few fleeting moments when I thought that I might be making history.

For the most part, though, I understood the best possible outcome for my candidacy was to make it easier for the second no-party-preference candidate for statewide office in California history.

Former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, like me a Republican expatriate, decided to run for his former position this year as an NPP and began with certain advantages.

Poizner benefited from the credibility that came from having previously served in the job as well as a statewide political support base and donor network from his previous campaigns.

While I had finished fourth in a primary behind the preferred candidates of the two major political parties and an accused arms trafficker, Poizner qualified for the general election and lost by only a few percentage points to the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate in a historical blue wave campaign cycle.

Despite the disparity in the nature and scope of our respective defeats, there are lessons to be learned from our experiences that can lay the groundwork for a successful centrist candidate.

Poizner received 700,000 more votes than the Republican candidate for governor. More than five million Californians voted for him, the most votes cast for an independent for any statewide position in American history.

Every single one of the 24 newspapers to endorse in the Insurance Commissioner’s race endorsed Poizner. Only a historically deep blue Democratic wave that swept every statewide office and every competitive California congressional campaign kept him from victory.

The data underneath Poizner’s near-miss points to the roadmap that other independent candidates can follow to victory on a more even playing field. He carried Orange and Ventura counties, traditionally swing areas such as Sacramento County and most of the Central Valley, and Republican bastions in Eastern and Northern California.

His defeat was a result of large-scale losses in Bay Area counties and in coastal areas where Democrats piled up sizable margins.

But those regions also represent the geographic areas where no-party-preference voters make up especially large portions of the electorate. Not surprisingly, those voters were strongly motivated to turn out against Trump and his allies, and almost certainly cast straight Democratic ballots as a statement against the President.

This suggests that an NPP candidate could make significant inroads with these voters in a future election less colored by national overtones, though that landscape is unlikely to exist until Trump has left the arena, in 2022 at the earliest.

The fact that Poizner came so close to victory tells us that the voters of this state are not totally entrenched within the two-party system. But they are not ready to abandon that system either.

NPP candidates must recognize that the political center does not have a monopoly on smart ideas and that committed progressives and equally ardent conservatives are just as invested in the state’s future as we are.

A new movement should look for allies among the Legislature’s moderate Democratic caucus and New Way Republicans to facilitate productive trans-partisan conversation and provide common ground on which a respectful and inclusive dialogue can flourish.

While we centrists believe a balanced approach is the best path forward for California, we would be foolish to ignore ideas from others who with different ideological perspectives. Those who disagree with us are neither stupid nor evil, but rather well-intended citizens who simply have a different idea on how a state can best confront our policy challenges.

In California and across America, many talented people choose not to run for office because they want no part of the bitterness of partisan politics.

Poizner’s decision to run as an independent, and his considerable success even in a loss, should be a lesson for others and pave the way for those who are willing to run and serve as non-partisan problem solvers.

It’s been said that there is no such thing as a raging moderate. But in 2022, a candidate who runs to represent the radical center can learn from the roadmap that the state’s first two NPP candidates navigated, and succeed where we came up short.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and at UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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