In Kansas, with the Democratic candidate officially out of the race, independent candidate Greg Orman is looking increasingly comfortable to win over lackluster Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, whose political survival now depends on getting the tinfoil-tricorn fringe of the party that voted for his opponent in the primaries to turn out for him.
Over in South Dakota, Republican candidate Mike Rounds is polling somewhat better, holding onto a measurable lead over his opponents (in part because, unlike in Kansas, the Democratic candidate remains an active and viable campaigner), but a persistent scandal is dogging his heels and dragging his numbers downward, and his independent opponent, Larry Pressler, is a former Republican with a good shot at wooing away the party’s saner, more centrist voters.
Unlikely as the event remains, a win for both independent candidates in the midterms could be one of the healthiest things to happen to American democracy in a long time.
There are already two independents in the Senate (Bernie Sanders and Angus King), but neither one has ever won election at a time when control of the chamber could be tipped by an independent’s vote. If Pressler and Orman both win in 2014, depending on what happens with other elections, we could conceivably see both major parties with under 50 seats.
For practical purposes, some of the independents would be spoken for, of course — Bernie Sanders is unlikely to cross the aisle and start voting Republican on major issues any time soon. And the GOP in particular seems determined to burn bridges with the independent candidates before election day; RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has already called the possibility of Orman caucusing with Republicans “impossible” and “ridiculous.”
But in theory, independent wins could put both major parties in the position of having to actually work for their Senate majority on votes of substance. That would be unprecedented — and it would be a vital step back toward a functioning democracy, where policy is crafted based on compromises that can win approval from a wide range of diverse interests, rather than by bare-minimum marginal victories along polarized party lines.
Could that, in turn, shift incumbent legislators’ attention away from political grandstanding aimed at winning a party majority in the next election cycle, and back toward actually legislating? Don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves — but it would be a hopeful step, and a badly needed jolt to both major parties’ institutionalized complacency.