Election 2018FeaturedNews

TRAIL MIX | Hoping to build a powerful coalition from the center out

Author: Ernest Luning - September 7, 2018 - Updated: September 24, 2018

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"Facts and reason don’t care about the purity tests of partisan special interest groups. They care about results for Americans, and so do we," says former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, founder of Stand Up Republic, at a Unite America conference on Aug. 18, 2018, in Denver. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)“Facts and reason don’t care about the purity tests of partisan special interest groups. They care about results for Americans, and so do we,” says former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, founder of Stand Up Republic, at a Unite America conference on Aug. 18, 2018, in Denver. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

Americans have never been as sharply or deeply divided along partisan lines, research shows, but at the same time the ranks of the unaffiliated — voters who don’t feel at home in either major party — are growing at a record pace.

Just glance at a screen, and the results of the most recent round of Pew Research Center polling will be obvious — Republicans and Democrats disagree about pretty much everything, and the further they retreat into their respective corners, the more dysfunctional government gets.

Evan McMullin, the former CIA officer from Utah who mounted an independent bid for president in 2016 as a conservative alternative to Donald Trump, thinks he’s landed on a solution.

“What we need to do is build a new coalition that works to support candidates who are either independent or committed to fact-based policy-making,” McMullin said in an interview with Colorado Politics during a recent visit to Denver.

The co-founder of Stand Up Republic, an organization he formed after his presidential run to “defend democracy,” had just finished addressing a national conference devoted to electing independent candidates.

“I think independent candidates are part of the answer. But I think supporting Democrats and Republicans who are committed to our founding ideals are another piece of it,” he said, flashing a grin to acknowledge his message didn’t quite match the one promulgated by the event’s sponsors.

The conference was organized by Unite America, the Colorado-based nonprofit that used to be known as the Centrist Project. For a couple of days, roughly 250 candidates, operatives and activists rubbed shoulders while they discussed the future of a movement most agreed had arrived.

The group is pouring around $1 million into electing at least one unaffiliated candidate to the Colorado General Assembly — it’s endorsed five hopefuls and is helping out another — and has gotten behind gubernatorial campaigns in Alaska, Kansas and Maine, a Senate race in Maryland and legislative candidates in a half dozen other states.

“In the future, relatively few independent leaders could make a disproportionate impact by controlling the balance of power between both political parties in narrowly divided legislatures. … These independents could use their leverage in deciding the majority to influence leadership positions, committee assignments, and the rules of the institution,” reads a report issued by the group called “Reimagining Governance in an Age of Polarization.”

While Colorado doesn’t have the tradition of electing independents that states like Alaska and Maine have, the group still considers it fertile ground for a trial run at shaking up what it pegs as a rigidly partisan system.

Political observers are accustomed to describing Colorado’s electorate as “a third, a third and a third” — evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliateds — but the numbers show that unaffiliated voters make up a substantially bigger share than either of the two major parties.

According to the most recent registration figures compiled by the Secretary of State’s office, unaffiliated voters account for 37.3 percent of active voters in Colorado, while Democrats stand at 30.7 percent, and Republicans come in at an even 30 percent. (The remainder belong to the state’s recognized minor parties, with only the Libertarians cracking a single percentage point, and the Greens, American Constitution Party and Unity Party members trailing far behind.)

There are plenty of reasons a voter might choose to register without picking a party, and experts say it’s a mistake to view independents as a homogenous bloc, somehow occupying the space between Republicans and Democrats. But it’s also clear that a plurality of Colorado voters aren’t comfortable wearing the two warring parties’ colors.

McMullin broke down the data compiled by Pew, which has been measuring Americans’ political values since 1994, when there was lots of overlap between Democrats and Republicans on a range of issues. That started to change in 2004, and the two parties have moved apart on ideological lines since, with little overlap on key questions.

“Still, there’s about a third of each party that is located in the middle of the political spectrum,” he noted. “As the parties move apart, the percentage of independents increases. There was a time a decade and a half ago when the parties moved somewhat closer together, and you saw the percentage of independents decline. But as the parties move away from each other and to extremes, these people in the middle — they’re not evaporating, they still exist, they’re just deciding not to affiliate with one party or another anymore.”

A good share of unaffiliated voters lean toward Republican or Democrat, the data show — but in many cases, they’re leaning away from one of the major parties rather than toward the other.

“Yes, they might vote Democrat all the time or Republican all the time, but they’re still not happy about it — this is the lesser of two evils,” McMullin said. “I think there’s an opportunity with them, in addition to true independents, who look at all candidates regardless of party.”

“I don’t like the word ‘centrist,’” he added, “because I don’t think it captures the energy of what this is, but I think we need to build a new coalition to elect leaders like this. And hopefully that forces both of the parties to once again compete for voters who support leaders like that. If we’re successful, then great, the country benefits. And if we aren’t successful in having that kind of influence over the parties, then we’ll have built the infrastructure for something entirely new.”

McMulliin said he’s likely to run for office again, but it won’t be real soon.

“I strongly believe I can provide the most value by continuing to build a new constituency and coalition for true positive change in America,” he said, and then described what that might look like.

“This isn’t the way Unite America would talk about it, but in my personal view, we should build a powerful coalition for change in America that is comprised of Americans who are unaffiliated, who are Republicans, who are Democrats — who are committed to our foundational ideals, who are committed to fact-based policy-making and who are committed to defeating extremists on both sides,” he said.

“Then that coalition needs to support candidates whether they be independents, Democrats or Republicans. That, I think, can drive change in this country, and that’s what we’re building.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.