Independent group, now called Unite America, names its Senate candidates — all two of them

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

A group hoping to create a third political force in America — one with some of the trappings of a party but thus far operating outside of partisan politics — on Tuesday named the two candidates it plans to run for the U.S. Senate in November.

In forming the Centrist Project last year, senior strategist Joel Searby had targeted Senate seats in seven states. Tuesday’s announcement — which included news that the group had changed its name to Unite America — introduced Craig O’Dear, a candidate in Missouri for the seat now held by Democrat Claire McCaskill, and Neal Simon, who is running for Democrat Ben Cardin’s seat in Maryland.

Unite America is also endorsing three gubernatorial candidates, including one incumbent, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who was elected as an Independent but faces dismal approval ratings in his state.

The group’s goal was to win enough Senate seats to deprive either major party of a majority, forcing them to compromise with each other and to cooperate with Unite America. They ask candidates to endorse their five principles and to pledge that if elected to the Senate they will not caucus with either party.

“The end goal emphatically is better governance,” said Dartmouth public policy professor Charles Wheelan, whose 2013 book “The Centrist Manifesto” helped inspire the movement. “Everybody is about winning elections and they seem to forget that the purpose of winning is to govern.”

But the group has discovered that building a movement is difficult without an infrastructure to support candidates, from money to data to campaign advisers to a national message. The group ended 2017 with $258,120 on hand.

“Something we’ve been learning is it is not a process where you can handpick someone and go create a senate or gubernatorial candidate out of thin air,” said Searby.

“Now that the word is getting out that we do have an infrastructure, that there [are] over 20,000 people in our grassroots and hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers, people are saying this is maybe something I want to be a part of,” Searby said.

But Unite America’s executive director, Nick Troiano, refuses to identify the group’s work as party building.

“The aspiration is not to become a political party,” Troiano said, adding that he sees parties as “part of the problem.”

He then added, “Pragmatically speaking, to elect candidates to office … we have to be able to replicate some of the structures that parties have.”

The other independent candidates running for governor with the backing of the group are Greg Orman of Kansas, who mounted a competitive but unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2014, and Maine Treasurer Terry Hayes, a former Democrat.

Orman said in his remarks that about half the country “thinks we need a third party.” And he described the need for a preexisting apparatus that provides personnel, data and messaging.

Wheelan said in an interview Tuesday that “we certainly are building a party apparatus” but “without a lot of the baggage.”

Talk of a third party has simmered with increasing frequency since Donald Trump took over the Republican Party. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in favor of a third party earlier this month. “It’s time for something new,” Brooks said.

Juleanna Glover, a veteran Republican operative who worked for former Vice President Dick Cheney, also wrote a New York Times op-ed recently in favor of a third party, and pointed out that 61 percent of Americans support the formation of another party, according to Gallup.

Unite America’s core message has broad appeal.

Orman said they want to upend a system in which “you win elections by painting your opponent as the most extreme version of themselves and trying to make voters afraid of them or hate them.”

“We can find common ground on almost every major issue that divides us,” he said.

But the test for Unite America will be how many elections they win. And if their candidates are successful, then their challenge will be keeping those elected officials from joining one of the two parties in exchange for help in getting things done.

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