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Miller: Bar is high for 3rd-party, independent candidates

Updated: November 23, 2012 6:12AM



I published a poll last month showing indicted former state Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) leading third-party candidate Lance Tyson in the 10th House District race by a mind-boggling 47 percent to 9 percent.

Since then, there’s been a lot of grumbling about how Chicago voters ought to know better. After all, Smith was indicted for allegedly taking a bribe and was expelled from the House by his colleagues. It was all over the news. People should know that, for crying out loud.

At the time the poll was taken, however, Tyson hadn’t spent much, if any, money on his campaign. He isn’t a known quantity in the district. And he’s not a Democrat, at least not on the ballot.

The poll of likely voters presented a choice between Smith and Tyson and gave their party affiliations. Smith won the Democratic primary election in March, while Tyson belongs to the newly created “10th District Unity Party.”

Persuading voters to take a look at third-party or independent candidates is never easy. Go back to 1986 when members of Lyndon LaRouche’s cultish organization won some statewide Democratic primary races in Illinois.

Democrat Adlai Stevenson’s running mate was beaten by one of those candidates, and Stevenson had to form a third party to run for governor. Stevenson, who had nearly defeated Republican Gov. Jim Thompson four years earlier, got just 40 percent of the vote as the Solidarity Party candidate in 1986.

This in a year when Democrat Neil Hartigan won the attorney general’s race with 62 percent and Democrat Alan Dixon won the U.S. Senate race with 65 percent. But Stevenson’s Solidarity Party candidate for secretary of state received just 17 percent against the LaRouche Democrat’s 15 percent.

Voters are hard-wired to look at party affiliation. If you say “Democrat” or “Republican” to a voter, he or she knows what you’re talking about. If you say “10th District Unity Party” to a voter, you’ll likely get a blank stare and plenty of suspicion, especially if that candidate is completely unknown.

And the same goes for independents. Just ask Forrest Claypool, who was a well-known Cook County politician and ran as an independent candidate for county assessor two years ago. Claypool spent a pile of money, yet received just 32 percent of the vote against Democrat Joseph Berrios.

So, it should’ve been little surprise when polling last month showed that independent candidate Dee Beaubien was getting only 26 percent against Republican David McSweeney in the 52nd House District battle. Beaubien has a pretty well-known name because her late husband served in the House.

Unlike Lance Tyson, she had spent a considerable amount of money by last month. But that “independent” label was hurting her, even in an area where voters pride themselves on their independence.

Beaubien recently put $100,000 of her money into her campaign, which means that the state’s campaign contribution limits are gone in this race. Once a self-funder breaks the $100,000 mark, all caps are off.

McSweeney countered with $70,000 of his own cash, plus Jack Roeser’s Otto Engineering put $100,000 into the contest for McSweeney. It’s now a free-for-all. Well, not free, exactly.

It’s going to be a financial bloodbath if the House Democrats stay in the race, the pro-choice Personal PAC goes all in against the pro-life McSweeney and Beaubien keeps her checkbook open.

Lance Tyson, on the other hand, is still struggling to raise money. He’s reported receiving or loaning himself just $33,000 in contributions since Sept. 28.

Beaubien and Tyson really have two opponents on the ballot — their actual opponents and the legions of voters who can’t get past party labels.

Beaubien is better positioned financially to overcome both, but she’s being matched at least dollar for dollar so far by McSweeney. Tyson will have the media behind him and presumably some ground troops. But both candidates are running straight uphill because it’s hugely difficult to undo decades of voter behavior.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The Rev. James Meeks ran as an independent against a Democratic incumbent and won a state Senate seat from Chicago in 2002.

But Meeks was extremely well-known in the district because his church has tens of thousands of members. He also spent more than $400,000 to win the race and got big help from some major unions and area politicians.

So it can happen. Independents and third-party candidates can win. But it’s awfully rare.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com



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