Will Third-Party Candidates Make the Difference in Top Races?

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 5, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Every cycle there is buzz about third-party candidates drawing votes from one candidate and throwing the election to another. This cycle is no different. But not all third-party candidacies are equal.

In Ohio’s 15th district, state Sen. Steve Stivers (R) and Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D) are battling for the open seat vacated by Rep. Deborah Pryce (R). Retired state legislative and budget analyst Don Elijah Eckhart is running as an Independent, and is attracting some attention after the Ohio Right to Life endorsed his candidacy.

The situation isn’t a complete surprise, since Eckhart ran for the state Senate four years ago as an Independent against Stivers. Eckhart received the Ohio Right to Life nod in that race too and received 14,509 votes (9 percent), while Stivers cruised to re-election, 58 percent to 34 percent.

Eckhart may draw a few percentage points in GOP-heavy Union and Madison counties, but they comprise only 13 percent of the 15th Congressional district, which is dominated by Franklin County.

“Don knows that big money leads to favoritism and corruption,” according to his Web site. “He is self-funding this campaign to set an example.” On June 30, Eckhart had $370 on hand, after giving his campaign $5,228.40 and raising a couple of hundred dollars from individuals.

Eckhart is “reaching out to Christian voters via ads on Christian radio,” according to a story in Tuesday’s Columbus Dispatch, and “making contact” with 12 churches in Union County. According to his Federal Election Commission filing, Eckhart spent a little more than $2,000 on radio ads through June 30, with the much of the rest of the money going for the Web site and parade candy.

If the margin in this district is 1,062 votes again, as it was in 2006 when Pryce edged Kilroy, then Eckhart could make a difference. But don’t expect him to make a big splash.

In New Jersey, Democrats believe Bridgewater Councilman Michael Hsing’s Independent candidacy will aid state Assemblywoman Linda Stender’s (D) effort in GOP Rep. Mike Ferguson’s open 7th district.

Stender lost narrowly to Ferguson in 2006 and faces state Sen. Leonard Lance (R). Lance survived a crowded and competitive primary on June 3 and finished with only $81,000 in the bank on June 30 after spending more than $400,000. While Lance regrouped, Stender was sitting on $1.2 million and is already airing television ads.

Hsing had $92,000 in the bank on June 30. The registered Republican, who was born and raised in Taiwan, told the local media that he raised most of his $114,000 from the minority community outside the district. He’s only spent $22,000 thus far, since he dropped out of the Republican race early on, claiming that the system was “rigged.”

Again, if the race is extremely close, anything or anyone can be the difference maker. But there is little evidence that Hsing has strong ties within the Republican Party or will have the money to raise his profile in a very expensive Congressional district.

In Michigan’s 9th district, Jack Kevorkian is running as an Independent. Known as “Dr. Death,” Kevorkian announced his candidacy in March and recently filed enough valid signatures to be on the November ballot.

The 80-year-old physician was released from prison in June 2007 after serving eight years for second-degree murder for helping a man die in 1998. Kevorkian is also terminally ill with Hepatitis C.

Kevorkian hasn’t filed with the FEC, meaning he hasn’t raised or spent more than $5,000, but he could still be a factor in the race. According to private polling from the middle of June, Kevorkian is very well known and unpopular, but drawing a significant percentage of the vote.

He’s also drawing a disproportionate number of Democrats, hurting former state Lottery Commissioner Gary Peters’ (D) effort to oust Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R). On July 16, the Congressman showed almost $1.9 million on hand to almost $1.1 million for Peters.

Democrat Michael Jackson’s Independent candidacy in Louisiana’s 6th district could have the greatest electoral impact. The African-American state Representative drew 27 percent against fellow state Rep. Don Cazayoux (and three other Democrats) in the March 8 special primary and 43 percent against Cazayoux in the April 5 runoff.

Cazayoux went on to win the special general election, but his narrow 49 percent to 46 percent margin over a flawed Republican candidate shows that the new Congressman doesn’t have much room for error in a district that is approximately one-third black. Cazayoux faces a more credible Republican challenger this fall.

Even though Jackson is not expected to raise much money, he clearly has an electoral base in the district and could make the difference in the race.