Former U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson County, says he’s thinking about running for governor as an independent.
Is this possible? Lots of things are possible.
The better question is: Would he have a realistic shot?
On that score, I must deliver this news: No.
The idea of an independent or third-party candidate winning is an appealing thought for those fed up with the partisanship of our two major parties but it’s mostly a fantasy – although there are just enough exceptions across the country to give inspiration to disaffected politicians such as Riggleman.
The reasons why involve history, math and human psychology.
Let’s deal with the history first.
We trace the modern era of Virginia politics from 1969, when Republican Linwood Holton broke the state’s one-party monopoly. From then until now, we have had 14 gubernatorial elections. Ten of those have had independent or third-party candidates on the ballot (1969 actually had three such candidates, making it a five-way race.) One of those, in 1973, was Henry Howell, who technically ran as an independent but was really the de facto Democratic candidate; the party did not nominate a candidate that year, which came as Virginia’s parties were realigning into their current left-right configuration. To me, that doesn’t count.
If we take Howell out, that means we’ve had 11 independent or third-party candidates. Of those, only five managed to poll more than 1% of the vote and then not by much.
In 1969, Conservative Party candidate Beverly McDowell took 1.1%.
In 1997, Reform Party candidate Sue Harris DeBauche took 1.5%.
In 2005, independent Russ Potts took 2.2%.
The high point came in 2013, when Libertarian Robert Sarvis took 6.5%.
Some context is in order: Potts was a sitting state senator of some seniority, a Republican who deviated from the party. For all of his contacts, he made little impression on the race.
Sarvis did, but he had the advantage of running in a year when many voters were unhappy with the choice they had between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli. (If Republicans had nominated Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, he’d have probably won.) Sarvis was a safe receptacle for protest votes that year. He certainly didn’t represent a sudden upsurge of interest in Libertarians.
Four years later, in 2017, Clifford Hyra was the Libertarian Party candidate and he took 1.1% of the vote. We can probably measure the size of the protest vote in 2013 by measuring the difference between Sarvis’ 6.5% and Hyra’s 1.1%.
Historically, independent or third-party candidates have done best when voters are unhappy with both parties. Maybe Virginians will feel that way in 2025 but we shouldn’t count on it. We have no idea who the Democratic candidate will be – names floated include Rep. Abigail Spanberger, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, former House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Loudoun County Del. David Reid – but we can probably make a good guess who the Republican nominee might be. The odds seem good it will be either Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears or Attorney General Jason Miyares. Maybe voters will recoil from them for one reason or another but the relevant points seem to me to be that a) they’ve both already won a majority of the vote and b) they seem comfortably within the mainstream of today’s Republican Party. (Counterpoint: Cuccinelli had been elected, too, but voters apparently didn’t much care for his combative performance as attorney general. We have no evidence yet that voters have soured on either Earle-Sears or Miyares.)
Independents and third-party candidates also do best when they can pull from both sides; the ones who have won in other states (examples to come) have generally fit more or less in the political center. Riggleman is a former Republican. His voting record during his single term in Congress was pretty reliably Republican; the main thing that seemed to upset 5th District Republicans was a libertarian streak that led Riggleman to preside over a same-sex wedding, which horrified some on the right. If Riggleman runs as an independent, where will his votes come from? I have a hard time seeing Democrats voting for him, given his conservative voting record. And I have a hard time seeing Republicans voting for him as long as they have a reasonable candidate of their own. There may be some political space available but is it enough to poll a plurality of the vote? I’m skeptical.
Next, let’s look at examples of independents or third-party candidates who have won governorships in other states. This will cover the same time period as our Virginia analysis: from the 1970s to now. I’m not counting Charlie Crist, who was elected governor of Florida as a Republican and became an independent while in office. We need to look only at candidates who were elected as independents. That means five states: Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota and Rhode Island.
All those are smaller states than Virginia, four of them especially so – Minnesota being the exception. Of the other four, the biggest is Connecticut with 3.6 million, the smallest is Alaska at fewer than 734,000 people. Virginia is home to 8.6 million. The less populous the state, the more personal the politics can be, opening the door for more, shall we say, unusual politics. Most of the winning independents involve candidates who were well-known in the state before they ran. In Alaska in 1989, Wally Hickel was a former governor and former interior secretary under President Richard Nixon. In Connecticut in 1990, Lowell Weicker was a former U.S. senator. In Rhode Island in 2020, Lincoln Chaffee was a former U.S. senator. In Maine in 1994, Angus King was a popular host on public television in a state of barely 1.3 million. Riggleman’s one term as congressman from the 5th District does not make him a statewide figure in a way that those candidates were, his appearance on “60 Minutes” in his role as a former investigator for the House’s Jan. 6 committee notwithstanding.
The Alaska governor’s race of 2014 provides another exception: Bill Walker was a former Republican who ran as an independent, but also ran with the endorsement of the state’s Democratic Party.
Once we set aside candidates who previously held statewide office, or the weirdness of the 2014 Alaska governor’s race that had no Democratic candidate, that leaves us with just two other examples of independents defeating both a Democrat and a Republican to win a governorship: James Longley in Maine in 1974 and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota in 1998.
Longley was a long time ago in a small state; Maine at the time was home to fewer than 1 million people, so not that much bigger than one of Virginia’s current congressional districts.
Ventura – a former pro wrestler – was the most unusual exception and I suppose there are exceptions to everything.
So it’s not impossible for an independent to win, but it’s obviously very hard. Both parties have a corps of activists at the ready for the groundwork of politics – knocking on doors, phone banking, the whole business of identifying potential voters and getting them to the polls. Even the weakest party nominee has some structure to call upon; an independent has nothing. Third-party candidates also face the “wasted vote” challenge. Some voters are willing to cast their ballot for a candidate they know won’t win – that’s how Sarvis got 6.5% of the vote in 2013 – but most aren’t willing to do that. Third-party candidates often poll well at the outset when voting is more theoretical but as Election Day approaches, they fade – voters either don’t want to waste their votes or they become concerned that the “wrong” candidate might win, so they vote for a major-party candidate, who they may not like, just to block another major party candidate who they like even less.
So I don’t put much stock in the prospect of Riggleman as an independent candidate – at least not under Virginia’s current election setup. Here’s a thought experiment: How would he, or some other independent, fare if Virginia had ranked-choice voting?