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The Progressive Candidate's Secret Weapon

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It’s pretty easy to get depressed about this year’s elections. Super PAC noise is already drowning out a lot of conversation in the presidential race, and voters on both sides are having a hard time getting excited.

But in Oregon, things look very different. Last week, a group called the Working Families Party led a campaign to unseat a centrist Democrat from his post in the state house. Mike Schaufler has represented district 48 for 10 years, and in that time has built a reputation for siding with the GOP on everything from corporate taxes to environmental politics to health care. By 2012, many voters—including the Oregonian’s editorial board—were ready for a big change. Until very recently, this proved difficult, what with Schaufler’s cozy relationship with big corporate donors, like the Koch Brothers.

That’s why his defeat in last Tuesday’s primary was such a big deal, and why the Working Families Party is increasingly a group worth watching, says Mother Jones. Tellingly, the winner last week, Jeff Reardon, was everything his challenger was not—especially when it came to raising money. To counter big donors, the party combined old-fashioned grassroots organizing with a once-popular electoral practice called fusion voting, which is a little like instant runoff. Now in most U.S. elections, getting votes is a zero-sum game, so third parties tend to hurt their closest competitors. But in the handful of states where fusion voting is allowed, multiple parties can endorse the same candidate. This means Working Families can lend its name to a candidate from a bigger party. It also means candidates from both major parties may want to compete over Working Families’ progressive agenda.

That’s exactly what happened in a New York state senate race back in 2004, reports The Nation. Instead of trying to convince the Democrats’ nominee, Working Families focused on her high-ranking GOP challenger, Nick Spano. Well aware that Working Families had major clout in his district, Spano agreed to the party’s most pressing demand—a promise to raise the minimum wage. A few months later, having (narrowly) won the election with the party’s support, Spano led a successful campaign at the state capitol to do just that. The move was no doubt controversial, but effective, says the Nation’s Alyssa Katz: “By wielding the power to make or break one of its top leaders, Working Families pushed the Republican Party to take a progressive stance.”

A century ago, fusion voting was a lot more popular—and legal in most states. This allowed populist groups like the People’s Party to ally with both Republicans and Democrats in state and national races to press for voting rights, education funding, and other issues outside the political mainstream. In 1894, an alliance of Republican and People’s candidates took over the state legislature in North Carolina and sent several Congressmen and Senators to Washington. Two years later, the two parties controlled all statewide offices, and introduced sweeping reforms like county home rule and badly-needed election monitoring. The alliance even helped elect George H. White in 1896, the last black member of Congress from a southern state until 1972.    

North Carolina was not alone. The People’s Party had grown out of the Farmers Alliance, a much larger movement of radical farmers and co-ops that was active in 43 states by the early 1890s. Within a decade of its start in 1891, People’s candidates unseated dozens of U.S. Congressmen and won governorships in nine states (five by fusion voting). And while it wasn’t the only key to populist success in the 1890s, fusion voting was a big factor. Then as now, it allowed a third party to compete in larger races, and enter the electoral debate in a big way. It’s that success that groups like Working Families would like to repeat today, though the process has become a little more complicated.

Today, fusion voting is banned in most states—more than a dozen passed bans by 1907, and now the list stands at more than 40. But in most places where it is allowed, Working Families has gained a foothold. In Connecticut, the party recently championed a law to enforce paid sick leave for all workers—the first in the nation. In New York, it helped pass a statewide green jobs program, among other successes. Like People’s, Working Families has big ties to organized labor, and now, to parts of Occupy. While Working Families can boast nowhere near the success of earlier fusion parties, it stands out in an era of strict two-party politics and unprecedented partisanship.

And interest is growing. Fusion voting was actually banned in Oregon until 2009, when third parties and activists made enough noise to reverse the ban. Since then Working Families has fought for single-payer, workers’ rights, and fair trade laws in Oregon. And in another parallel with older populism, the party has also championed a public state bank, modeled on North Dakota’s—itself a populist holdout of the radical farmers’ movement.

Reardon’s victory is a big win for the party. For most of its short history, Working Families has been an East Coast thing, so the fact that it’s now making waves out west could be significant. But what seems even more important is the idea that third parties could have much more of a voice in major elections. If other states follow in Oregon’s footsteps, elections could have much more to do with issues and voters and much less to do with politics.   

Sources: The Oregonian, Mother Jones, The Brennan Center for Justice, The Nation, North Carolina History Project, American Prospect.  

 Image by whiteafrican, licensed under Creative Commons.