You’ve probably heard of U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, the Republican who has represented the 2nd Congressional District since 1995.
And you may have heard of his Democratic challenger, Cassandra Shober.
But there will be four other candidates on the ballot for the congressional seat this year. And like most independent and third-party candidates, Charles Lukens, David W. Bowen Sr., John C. Ordille and Frank Faralli Jr. travel a lonely road.
“I feel that automatically some people write you off because you’re not either a Republican or a Democrat,” Bowen said. “I’m not saying everybody, but there are a group of people out there.”
Current and former third-party and independent candidates say the state’s political system is all but locked to people who want to take a crack at elective office but are neither a Democrat nor a Republican. They point to an electorate that describes itself in polls as less and less affiliated with political parties, and wonder why they can’t benefit from that.
Candidates say they can get on the ballot easily, but the crowded state ballot, the nature of the winner-take-all system, the assumption that they are spoilers and the concentration of existing power in the political parties all but guarantee the two-party system.
Independent and third-party candidates have seen only limited success in New Jersey, despite winning elsewhere.
In 2009, Christopher J. Daggett ran as an independent candidate for governor in a race won by Republican Chris Christie. Daggett reached as high as 20 percent in some pre-election polls but received less than 6 percent of the vote in the election.
As John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, saw it, people were voting against candidates, saying “what happened was people who may or may not have been enthusiastic for (then-Gov.) Jon Corzine or Chris Christie said they cared whether Corzine or Christie won.”
Still, it was the most votes ever seen by a New Jersey independent, and at nearly 6 percent, the best result in almost a century. In 1913, state Sen. Everett Colby, a 39-year-old attorney and Progressive reformer, gained national attention for prosecuting corrupt Jersey City politicians. Then he ran for governor and, with a smaller electorate, got slightly less than 11 percent of the vote.
During all that time, only one independent ever won election to the Legislature: Anthony Imperiale, of Newark, in 1971. Imperiale served a total of three terms in the Assembly and Senate as an independent before losing, becoming a Republican and returning to the Assembly the next term. Another politician, Matt Ahern, won a seat in the Assembly as a Democrat but switched to the Green Party after a 2003 interparty fight. He was voted out in the next election.
Bowen, 46, from Pittsgrove Township, is a residential and commercial real estate investor. He said he’s running for Congress because he wants government to hew as close to the Constitution as possible and said he didn’t think LoBiondo represented the district.
Since filing, he said organizations he sought the endorsement of have shunned him in favor of major-party candidates and that raising the money needed to get his name out there was all but impossible.
“You have to be affiliated with one of the parties,” Bowen said. “As an independent, people are not as receptive. Even though they complain about the parties, most people fall into the independent category.”
Lukens, Ordille and Faralli did not return calls seeking comment.
The biggest change needed to increase participation would alter the state’s ballots to allow voters to make their first and second choices, Weingart said. If a candidate doesn’t win outright, he said, people’s second choices could be tallied.
Weingart said that would dispel the notion that third-party candidates have no realistic shot. He said the current winner-take-all system means “you are always going to have the Ralph Nader phenomena.”
Many Democrats blame Green Party candidate Nader for taking votes away from Al Gore in 2000, similar to Republicans who blame independent candidate Ross Perot for helping shift the 1992 presidential race to Bill Clinton. Weingart said a run-off ballot would have offered a fairer result.
Otherwise, he said, “They and their supporters say they’re sending a statement, but it’s not a signal or a statement that anyone ever hears.”
That sentiment was echoed by Bill Reiter, chairman of the state’s Green Party. The left-oriented outfit, which supports environmental solutions, has been on state ballots for years with little success.
“They are afraid to think of voting for a third party because they are afraid it will be a spoiler,” Reiter said.
Because they’re not taken seriously, candidates also complain they have limited access to debates and other public forums.
“If there are candidate debates, generally they’re not included,” Weingart said. “They’re generally not included because they’re not thought to have any way to get to win.”
Without money or public access, it is also difficult for candidates to increase their name recognition, a particular problem in the 2nd District, which stretches across the southern third of New Jersey and includes all or parts of eight of the state’s 21 counties.
Joe Siano is the treasurer of the state’s Libertarian Party, which supports limited government and personal liberties.
To him, campaign finance laws that seek to limit the influence of money on politics have perversely served to benefit the established parties, as it limited the role of large donors on single candidates and kept smaller parties in check.
“If you really wanted to break through,” Siano said, “this nickel-and-diming at $2,500 apiece won’t do it.”
Furthermore, state laws make it difficult for third parties to win better ballot positions. The first two columns on New Jersey ballots are reserved for Republicans and Democrats, with other parties having to poll at least 10 percent of the total vote cast in an Assembly race before they get similar placement or the ability to participate in the June primary election.
State election records show that no other party has even come close.
Political experts have split on the effect, saying that this explicit political affiliation, known informally as “the line,” can be worth anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of the vote. Independent candidates say it serves to isolate those who do not run with party support.
Siano said allowing third parties to participate in the primary election would give them an air of legitimacy that would likely carry over to debates and other public events.
Gary Stein, 55, of Mullica Township, has repeatedly run for local office as an outsider, winding up on the ballot as an independent and a Democrat. He ran against LoBiondo as a Democrat in 2010, and this year lost a Democrat primary election to Shober. Initially he thought the ballot placement was great, since he was alone and voters could find him easily.
But then he realized he looked like he was purposefully excluded from the legitimacy of a political party. The line, he said, “It’s worth about 9,000 percent.”
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