What impact will independents have in the year of the outsider?

Wasn’t this supposed to be the year of the outsider, when people not entrenched in the two party system were going to throw down the gates of the establishment? In some ways we’ve seen the two major parties invaded by a few folks who aren’t career politicians, but actual third party candidates have mostly landed with a thud. We’re not just talking about the presidency here, but the House and Senate as well. But that doesn’t mean they’re not having an effect.

For one example I’ll call your attention to a not every often discussed congressional race out here in upstate New York’s 22nd district. The seat here is being vacated by the retiring Richard Hanna, whose only major claim to fame after three terms is being the first elected Republican House member to come out and say he was voting for Hillary Clinton. (Adios, Richard.)

His departure led to a crowded GOP primary battle which eventually produced Claudia Tenney, a state legislator and Tea Party candidate who had run unsuccessfully in the past, but this time she put it all together for the win. The Democrats, not expecting to do very well and having a shallow bench, wound up nominating Kim Myers. She was a county legislator who was better known for being from one of the richer families in the region with some coin to put into the race. When the 22nd was re-cut following the 2010 census this became a pretty solidly conservative district. Hannah beat a hapless Democrat in 2012 by twenty points even as Obama was rampaging at the head of the ticket and he ran essentially unopposed in 2014. There was no reason to think that Claudia Tenney couldn’t inherit the same favorable tailwinds and cruise to victory.

Then along came Martin Babinec. Babinec is an independent millionaire businessman from a small town in the northeastern edge of the district. He’s a self-described conservative who has already stated that he will caucus with the GOP if elected. He’s not carrying the baggage of either party’s candidate at the top of the ticket and proudly declares himself a one issue candidate. That issue is jobs and it’s pretty much all he talks about. The guy came to play and he obviously had the money to back his own effort. While it’s strictly anecdotal in terms of personal experience, I’ve seen as many television ads for Babinec as either the Republican or the Democrat and they’re professionally produced. My mailbox gets filled up with at least the same number of direct mail pieces as from Tenney or Myers and they are also obviously produced by an experienced shop.

The national party on the GOP side doesn’t seem to be too concerned about (or aware of) the independent because all the ads I see are just attacking Myers, not Babinec. Conversely, the DCCC ads attack both Tenney and Babinec as being, “too conservative for upstate New York.” But that doesn’t mean that the independent isn’t gaining attention and traction. He received the endorsement of the Chamber of Commerce instead of the Republican. (Which must have stung.) In terms of mainstream media Martin got the endorsement of the Syracuse Media Group covering the northern end of the district.

So what has all of this gotten for Babinec? The powers that be in the state still probably didn’t take him too seriously since they didn’t even bother putting the new party he created on the ballot in most places, despite having met all the requirements. (He is on the ballot on a few other lines, including the Libertarians, however.) As to his actual prospects on November 8th, polling is sparse out in this neck of the woods, but the last solid set of numbers still showed Martin in third place. The more alarming part of that survey is that he was taking such a chunk out of the electoral pie, likely almost entirely from Tenney, that the battle between the Republican and the Democrat was listed as a dead even tie at 34%, with Babinec coming in third at more than 20%.

Stop and think about that for a moment. A seat where the GOP went unopposed two years ago and won in a landslide in the year where Obama took well over 300 electoral votes may now go to the Democrats. If you want to dream up some other explanation for why that might be, feel free, but as far as I can tell there is only one. Our “outsider” came in and effectively diluted the Tea Party candidate’s pool so badly that no amount of fundraising and advertising is gathering up the lead that she would normally have. If you manage to replicate this in enough solidly red districts around the country, we just might figure out a way to lose the Speaker’s gavel.