Would Meg Whitman have won if she ran as an independent candidate?
That’s the question that comes to mind after reflecting on the collapse of the California Republican Party. With a base that refuses to accept 21st century reality and demands fealty to an agenda of white supremacy and feudal economics, Republican candidates are going to struggle to win statewide elections in a state where a clear majority of the population has rejected that base’s extremism.
In turn, that means Republican statewide candidates will always face the dilemma that helped bring down Whitman – they cannot please the right-wing base and have any chance at winning a statewide election. Whitman had to appease her base’s hatred of Latinos, and as a result lost the election by 13 points.
But what if Whitman didn’t have to run as a Republican? What if she spent her money to get herself on the ballot as an independent candidate? Whitman would have been free of the need to appease the right-wing base, and could have made a credible bid to win Latinos and other Californians who refuse to support the Republican agenda.
This thought experiment can only go so far, of course. Whitman didn’t just attack Latinos and threaten to destroy the state’s public services because it was necessary to win a GOP primary – it’s what she actually believed. Even as an independent candidate, Whitman’s same personal and political flaws would have enabled Jerry Brown to win – especially if Whitman bled votes to an actual Republican candidate. So an independent candidacy would, on its own, not have meaningfully changed things.
But what about the top-two primary?
That’s where things get interesting – and worrisome. It would not be difficult for corporate elites to back statewide candidates who run as independents in a top-two primary. These would be candidates in the mold of Michael Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Britain’s David Cameron – accepting the social liberalism of the electorate (rejecting the religious right, the anti-Latino right, and the anti-gay right) while espousing right-wing, neoliberal, corporate-friendly economic policies.
With enough money behind them, it is possible that such a candidate could place in the top two in the primary, alongside a Democrat, and pose a formidable challenge in a general election. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed how such a candidate could win in an election without party primaries (the 2003 recall). It’s a new party – the Corporate Party – that you don’t want to see.
At the same time, this effort would encounter some significant obstacles. Voters showed that they really don’t like wealthy self-funders, and are tiring of right-wing economic policies that undermine the public sector basis of prosperity.
Additionally, there really isn’t any electoral base for this kind of candidate – California’s electorate is divided into a large progressive bloc, a sizable right-wing bloc, and a very small number of people who aren’t solidly in either one, but who nevertheless gravitate toward one or the other. Wealth alone can’t cobble together a coalition that can give an independent corporate candidate a second-place showing in the primary.
Still, this represents the best, and perhaps only, hope for the corporate elite here in California. With an unelectable Republican Party, gaming the top-two primary gives them a shot at blocking Democrats from governing California.
Of course, Democrats themselves have work to do – namely, laying out a progressive agenda and vision for California that can consolidate Democratic victories. But that’s the topic for tomorrow’s post.