Opinion | Could a new political party defang radical politicians?

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Pundits and political scientists have claimed for years that there is no hope for a third party. The structural advantages for a two-party system and voters’ aversion to “throwing away their votes” pose a major hurdle for alternative candidates.

Yet in a couple of states, alternate parties thrive. In New York, the Conservative Party and the Working Families Party both endorse candidates. In the case of the Conservative Party, such candidates may also run on the Republican Party line. These sort of “fusion parties” used to be common throughout the 19th century, but the entrenched parties set about to outlaw them to protect their political turf.

Now, as Republicans leap into the abyss of the MAGA movement, such parties might once again serve a useful purpose. The test case is the highly competitive race in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, where moderate Democrat Tom Malinowski will likely face off against Tom Kean Jr., son of the former New Jersey governor and co-chair of the 9/11 commission who used to personify moderate Republican politics.

Kean Jr., unlike his father, cast a Faustian bargain with the far-right wing of the GOP. Like so many cynical careerists, he preferred to jump onto the MAGA bandwagon over the moderate politics that once made his father a revered figure in the state. Local coverage has ridiculed his pandering to the MAGA crowd, including his refusal to condemn the Republican National Committee’s description of the Jan. 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse.” The Star-Ledger editorial board lambasted him for “squandering” his family’s legacy.

Malinowski tells me, “I think there’s a desperate need in this country for Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans to strike an alliance” against the increasingly radical, “election-denying” GOP. He adds, “I think a substantial share of Republican-leading voters in districts like mine would be willing to vote for a moderate Democrat if they could do so under the flag of a party reflective of their values.” These are people who say “I don’t want to vote for AOC’s party” but would gladly cast their ballot for a candidate who sounded like, well, the elder Tom Kean.

In this case, that’s Malinowski. And that is where the new Moderate Party comes in.

A news release for the nascent party explains that it has endorsed Malinowski as part of its efforts to “combat growing political extremism and polarization.” It also noted that it is “prepared to push for major reforms to New Jersey’s unconstitutional election laws to allow him to appear on the ballot under both the Democratic and Moderate Party lines.”

The Moderate Party was recently formed by a group of New Jersey Republicans, Independents, and Democrats turned off by both major parties’ drift to ideological extremes, and creates a home for pragmatic, middle of the road voters committed to protecting our democratic institutions. Unlike most third parties, the Moderate Party will offer its support, and the validation that comes with it, to the major party candidates who best reflect its values, restoring to centrist voters the voice and leverage they have lost.

Moderate Party leaders are prepared to go to court if their petitions to qualify for a ballot position are denied. If they succeed, the Moderate Party and the Democratic Party would both appear on the ballot with Malinowski as the nominee. (It is also possible Malinowski might appear on the ballot with both parties listed below his name.) If the court fight fails or drags on, the state legislature may intercede to amend the prohibition on fusion parties.

Malinowski tells me the Moderate Party’s entry makes sense precisely “because Tom Kean has shredded the family legacy and engaged in a race to the bottom with the MAGA wing” of the GOP. That leaves plenty of stranded Republicans and independents to whom the Moderate Party might appeal.

New Jersey’s 7th district was redrawn this year as an ideal place to test out the Moderate Party’s viability. The district, though it is still closely divided, now has more Republicans than Democrats. As the New York Times reported, it is “largely affluent and suburban … [and] filled with the type of well-educated swing voters who helped Democrats across the country flip control of the House in 2018 and who are seen as crucial to November’s midterm elections.”

Malinowski is bullish on the Moderate Party’s plan, citing the violence and election subversion that threatens to tear the country apart unless the center of the electorate can attract the independents and moderate Republicans whom the GOP has abandoned. He says that if he wins by a few thousand votes supplied by voters choosing him on the Moderate Party line, these voters can rest assured he’ll “take them very seriously.”

Similar efforts might be able to influence the two parties’ primaries elsewhere, giving a boost to more centrist candidates. In Utah’s Senate race, Evan McMullin is running as a conservative independent. In Wyoming, allies of Rep. Liz Cheney (R) have invited Democrats to cross over to support her. Other states are implementing ranked-choice voting, which aims to hinder the extremes and bolster the center-left to the center-right voters that the two major parties used to represent.

There is no guarantee the Moderate Party will prevail or that its endorsement will help reelect Malinowski. But for those looking for a way to give moderate Republicans and independents a safe harbor from MAGA radicals and to encourage less extreme nominees from both parties, any success from the Moderate Party could point the way toward saner, more functional politics.