RAM WA Advisor Chris Vance launches independent campaign for State Senate

With spring here, candidates increasingly are starting to announce campaigns for offices on the November ballot.

If 2022 is like most years, there will be a small contingent intent on flouting the normal conventions of running as a Democrat or Republican for a partisan office. They will argue the two-party system doesn’t serve the state or country well, that it brings out the extremes in each party, that more and more people don’t identify as either a D or an R, and voters want more than just those two choices. They will be optimistic about their chances as they announce their campaigns.

Some will think up a creative or evocative name for a party that consists primarily of themselves and a few followers. Most will run as an independent.

Either way, the track record for such candidates in Washington under the current election rules is not good. Actually, it’s downright abysmal.

Since the time Washington went to the top-two primary – and, in fact, for decades before that – no independent or third-party candidate has been elected to a congressional, state or legislative office. Because of that, such candidates are usually people with big dreams but little experience in government and politics.

Chris Vance is trying to change that. A former Republican legislator, former King County councilman and former state GOP chairman, Vance announced last week he will run for a state Senate seat in the 31st District, which contains portions of suburban King and Pierce counties.

Although that district has a long history of electing Republicans, Vance left the GOP several years ago in hopes of finding and supporting centrist candidates. He’s running as an independent against incumbent Phil Fortunato, a member of the staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus whom Vance describes as “an unserious right-wing extremist.”

Like most independent candidates, Vance believes there are enough independents and moderates among Democrats and Republicans looking for a change, allowing him to win a race even if it’s for a partisan office.

Most people who jump into a race as a third-party or independent candidate don’t look far beyond election day. They don’t have an answer for some of the basic questions of how they would function outside of a legislative body built on a majority and minority caucus system. Vance, however, has been in the Legislature and is ready for such questions.

Unlike U.S. Senate independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King, who caucus and vote with Democrats, Vance said he’d caucus with neither party. “I’ll sit by myself on the Senate floor.”

He would expect to get assigned to some committees by the majority committee, and in the unlikely event that the 49-member Senate wound up with 24 Democrats, 24 Republicans and him, he’d likely vote with the Democrats on the first day of the session to organize the rules of the chamber, a key vote needed to get everything started.

“I disagree with the Democrats on a lot of issues but I think they are more serious about trying to address the issues confronting the state,” he said. After that, “I’d be a true independent, voting my conscience on any issue.”

The 31st is a district that stretches from the King and Pierce suburbs to the Cascade Crest, with several fast-growing suburban communities like Bonney Lake. It has a history of sending populist Republican firebrands to the Senate; Fortunato’s predecessor was Pam Roach, whose idiosyncrasies and fights with her party’s leaders were legendary, but she managed to serve 26 years.

Based on polling, Vance thinks he can beat Fortunato in a head-to-head contest in November, but that would depend on the Democrats not having a serious candidate in the primary.

The state’s top-two primary, which sends the candidates who finish first and second to the general election regardless of party, has been a major barrier to most independent and third-party campaigns. Party members are more likely to vote in a primary, and if there’s one or more candidates from each of the two major parties, they’ll snag most of the votes. An independent candidate in 2018 finished a distant third in that district’s Senate race.

Fortunato’s Democratic opponent in 2018, Immaculate Ferreria, received only minimal support from Democratic funding sources, but easily made it through the primary and collected 40% of the votes.

So far, the Democrats don’t have a serious candidate. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the 31st is not one of the party’s priority districts and “our recruiting efforts are focused elsewhere.”

While not endorsing him, Billig said he respects Vance as a hard worker who will be a formidable candidate and, as an independent, would be a good fit for the district.

Candidates are expected to be bullish about their prospects when entering a race, and Vance is no exception: “I’ve rarely been this confident about my chances.”

He is more confident than when he announced his campaign against U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in the fall of 2015. In those days he was among Republicans who thought their party’s presidential candidate would be Jeb Bush or John Kasich, and that eight years of Barack Obama might lead to a big Republican year.

“I thought I might have a chance,” he said. But Donald Trump at the top of the ticket got 38% of the vote and Vance got 41%.

Vance dropped out of the GOP after that. His efforts with former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird to help form a centrist party didn’t succeed, and now he’s trying an independent route, but with experienced campaign advisers.

There are times, Vance said, when he “just took a flyer” and decided to get into a race. “This is not that.”