OLYMPIA — A former leader of the Washington Republican Party is teaming with a former Democratic congressman to give independents a louder voice and greater presence in the state’s political conversation.
Chris Vance, the ex-Republican, and Brian Baird, who is still a Democrat, launched a new political endeavor Thursday aimed at recruiting and electing independent candidates starting with the state Legislature in 2018.
“The American people are sick and tired of the two political parties,” said Vance, a former state lawmaker who broke from the party this year. “They are sick and tired of the gridlock. They want something else. That’s what we will deliver. This is the alternative.”
Baird said he sees this as a potential healing tonic for an ailing body politic. People are divided ideologically and can’t talk with each other, he said. Meanwhile, with the two major parties held in such low regard, voters don’t participate, which leaves power in the hands of those guided by political orthodoxy, he said.
“What we are trying to do is get back the original vision of the founders and support people who put country first and not the party,” said Baird, who moved to Edmonds in 2010 following a 12-year career in Congress. This is his most public foray into politics since leaving office.
“Voters are not happy and they feel they don’t have a choice. There’s no place for independents and voters are hungry for precisely that,” he said. “That’s what we hope to provide.”
The leader of the state Democratic Party said she’ll withhold judgment but said so far it doesn’t look like they’ll find true independents to present to voters.
“I’m not inspired by the people they hold up as examples of their ‘centrist voices’ like Dave Reichert, Jeff Flake, and Slade Gorton,” chairwoman Tina Podlodowski said in an email “Seems a little too white, a little too male, and a little too Republican to be called ‘independent.’ ”
Caleb Heimlich, the executive director of the Washington State Republican Party, said GOP candidates in 2018 “will have demonstrated track records of fighting for their constituents, holding government accountable and investing in education.”
“Parties help define these issues for voters which motivates them to vote for our candidates,” he said in an email. “While independent candidates may be sincere they don’t have the power of a party behind them.”
Washington Independents, as the group is called, is part of an emerging movement nationwide. Vance rattled off states in which those eschewing party alignment are in power or pursuing higher office in 2018.
There’s Alaska, where Gov. Bill Walker is the only independent governor in the nation. In Maine, the independent state treasurer is running for governor in 2018. A state senator in Nebraska broke from the GOP and will vie for governor next year.
This new group in Washington is aligned with the Colorado-based Centrist Project, whose stated purpose is to “reshape and reform our political system — not as a traditional third party, but as America’s first Unparty.”
Part of its strategy is to elect candidates to seats in closely divided legislatures, like Washington’s, and deny either party an outright majority. These independents could have a greater say in the legislating process as a result.
In Washington, there’s a potential bounty of votes for candidates running as independents.
Stuart Elway, a Seattle pollster, said the number of people who identify themselves as independent consistently exceeds those who identify themselves as Republicans, and sometimes Democrats as well. Their numbers typically dip closer to an election as voters begin making their partisan choices.
In a January 2016 survey, 43 percent called themselves independent compared to 31 percent Democrat and 26 percent Republican. In October, 40 percent chose Democrat, 36 percent independent and 24 percent Republican.
“People are pretty disgusted with the two parties,” Elway said. “If there is an attractive independent, I would think they can get votes. Whether they win depends on all of the dynamics of a campaign.”
Vance said the group wants to provide independent candidates with tools and resources needed to run a competitive campaign. They want to help in the same way Democratic and Republican candidates are assisted by the political operations of the party caucuses in the House and Senate.
So far, Washington Independents Political Action Committee has received a handful of $250 contributions plus $10,000 from the Centrist Project to get up and going, Vance said. The information is reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Vance cautioned against expecting too much too soon. He said he’s meeting this week with a handful of potential candidates for 2018 and hopes for the emergence of an independent for governor in 2020.
They’ll be looking to assist individuals who are fiscally and socially moderate, and supportive of the group’s principles in areas such as governance, economic opportunity, problem solving, social tolerance and environmental responsibility.
“It’s a simple idea. We need to elect people to office who are not Republican or Democrat,” he said. “I think this is the beginning of the end of the two-party system.”