This is part three of a seven-part series about running for public office.
Remember the 2000 election cycle? That tortured episode was a watershed moment in so many ways. As a nation, we learned about butterfly ballots and getting snippy; as an individual, I learned about so-called crossover voting and political tit-for-tat—and I learned that I was not limited to belonging to either of only two political parties.
Now that you’ve prepared yourself for public life and chosen an office to seek, you should spend some (but not too much) time thinking about your stated party affiliation. Well, this is only true if you possess a grain of doubt. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool member of either major party—or any other—then this is an easy chapter in your journey to becoming a successful candidate.
But it’s always good to analyze the "why" behind even the surest of bets. Are you a Democrat merely because your family has been composed of Democrats for generations? Are you a Republican primarily because you would incur agonizing ridicule from your peers if you alluded to the contrary?
There is a meaningful distinction between feeling a basic affinity with a political party and running for office as an official representative of said party. Even if you want to be seen as a Republican or as a Democrat, that doesn’t mean the other members will choose you to represent them.
Just ask Larry Crim. In 2012, he wished to be the Democrat who took on U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in the general election. But the alchemy of alphabetization and low-information voters turned a dubious depiction into primary electoral gold for Mark Clayton, a man most Democrats disowned once they learned more about his actual views.
Clayton’s nomination was an accident, but parties can also close ranks around anointed ones. There are too many examples to list here where a well-intentioned citizen was bested by a party apparatus and thus did not get to participate fairly in an election. And sometimes, voters of one party will sneak into the other’s primary and completely ignore yours. But don’t let that deter you from seeking the nomination of a party if you believe that is where you belong.
Of course, there are more than two political parties; in fact, there is quite a list, with constituents and views ranging from the far right to the far left (in American terms). In Tennessee, the "big" three minor parties are the Constitution Party, the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. Though a federal case is still under appeal, these have gained tenuous ballot access, which means that if you are their nominee, you may be labeled as such.
If your party identity is a bit more obscure, you will be listed as "Independent" on the ballot, even though you will have been vetted by an organization. By the way, only the Democratic Party and the Republican Party hold primary elections using public resources. All other parties nominate their candidates by a variety of methods, including caucus and convention.
But do not assume you have to pick a party at all. What if your personal views, combined with your perceived amalgam of the electorate in your chosen jurisdiction, do not neatly fit within the boundaries of any party’s platform? You, like a great many of us, may be a complex individual who draws reasoned conclusions and seeks practical solutions based on a set of current inputs and values.
This likely makes you an Independent, although the Modern Whig Party might want to claim you. Oh, yeah, remember the Whigs? They died out in the mid-19th century, but they are staging a comeback as an antidote to hyper-partisanship. They even have one elected official, a Philadelphia man who this month won an election judge seat.
Staying Independent guarantees you a place on the general election ballot, not to mention freedom from ideological purity tests; but independence also sacrifices potential built-in support from a party’s infrastructure, should you happen to curry favor in their midst.
Opting to be outwardly partisan or to stick your neck out as a solo act is not the easiest choice. Fortunately, in some cases, it is made for you: For example, school board elections are nonpartisan by state law. Many municipal elections skip primaries, as do general sessions judgeships.
The two major parties each argue that their respective "big tents" allow for diversity and still provide cohesiveness. Their alleged addiction to power leads many to wonder if they are a large part of the current problem, but they routinely demonstrate the ability to win elections—as long as, some might say, they get to gerrymander districts.
On the other hand, the minor parties lay claim to narrower bands of voters, which places a constraint on the ability to win large-scale elections. Finally, Independents can be difficult to define and historically have found it harder to win, though this could change.
Whatever you decide you are, wear your label (or lack thereof) with quiet assuredness. It is by no means the most important aspect of your willingness and ability to serve.
Joe Lance shares his opinions on civic matters and politics from an impassioned but nonpartisan perspective. You are invited to follow both of his Twitter accounts (@tnticket or @joelance) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this editorial belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.