While incumbent Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Republican challenger Tom Foley butted heads during their first debate of the 2014 general election last Wednesday, two other candidates watched from the audience hoping to shape the outcome of the race despite their lack of major party support and recognition.
The experiences of Joe Visconti — who qualified to run by obtaining over 7,500 signatures of support — and former Democratic State Legislator and party official Jonathan Pelto, who failed to gather enough signatures to make the ballot, highlight the paradox faced by American third party candidates: their odds of victory are infinitesimal, but their potential to influence the outcome of a close race is incalculable, triggering anxiety among major party supporters.
Visconti, who submitted over 10,000 signatures to the Connecticut Secretary of the State, is best known for his support of gun rights and may siphon votes from Foley, according to Logan Dancey, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University.
On Aug. 29, Pelto announced that he had fallen short of the required 7,500 signatures, but the hostile response to his short-lived campaign from the Governor and traditionally democratic groups suggests concern that he might have won over some Malloy supporters.
Malloy, whom Pelto has criticized for his education policies, commented in mid-August that he doubted Pelto would qualify to run. Pelto said that two prominent teachers’ unions — the Connecticut Educators’ Association and the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut — refused to allow him to address their members or meet their leadership, despite his support for unions as a legislator and more recent public relations work for labor organizations.
“The message I got was I’m for democracy unless that democracy makes it more difficult for me to win, and then if democracy makes it more difficult for my opponent to win, I’m back for it,” Pelto said, referencing a lack of Democratic support for his candidacy coupled by Democratic rejoicing at Visconti’s.
Unlike Pelto, who was running as the candidate of the self-created Education and Democracy Party, Visconti will not appear as a member of any party on the ballot in November. The former West Hartford town councilman and Republican primary candidate said he chose not to create a new party because he considers himself a “national party platform Republican” and does not want to give up the Republican label.
Visconti said he believes he can win over fellow conservatives dissatisfied with Foley’s platform, especially on budget issues and gun rights.
So far, broad conservative support for Visconti does not seem to have materialized. The Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a gun rights advocacy organization with 15,000 members, endorsed Foley on Aug. 29.
Jack Kuenzle ’17, a CCDL supporter and resident of Roxbury, Conn., said he will be voting for Foley and fears Visconti will split the Republican vote. Recent polls have shown Foley with a slim lead over Malloy.
“I’d like to see independents and third party candidates have more of a chance, but in this case in particular, I’d prefer Visconti to not run at all,” Kuenzle said.
Fears that third candidates will act as spoilers in Connecticut elections are not new. In 2010, Foley lost to Malloy by around 6,000 votes, and Republicans accused Independent Party candidate Tom Marsh of handing the race to the Democrats. Marsh won about two percent of the vote, more than the margin of victory.
Now the town manager of Windsor, VT, Marsh said he was a “convenient scapegoat” for Republicans seeking to explain their loss.
“I think there’s hostility when somebody like Pelto or myself leaves an established party and in a sense betrays the machine they’ve dealt with,” Marsh said.
Marsh said he ran to provide an alternative to the two major parties, which he believes have become increasingly polarized and beholden to their bases. Marsh was included in a number of debates and events with Foley and Malloy, but excluded from several others, including two televised debates.
Marsh said he was told by the editorial boards that he would not be included because his presence would take away time from the major candidates.
Visconti was excluded from the first debate, hosted by the Norwich Bulletin, but told the Hartford Courant he did not mind since it was planned before he qualified to run on Aug. 20. He said he hopes to attend future debates.
Chris Cooper, a spokesman for the Foley campaign, said Foley supports Visconti’s right to appear on the ballot, but will focus on running against the governor.
Dancey said he thinks Visconti’s biggest impact on the race could be influencing the issues discussed throughout the campaign.
“If Visconti were to gain traction, which is a pretty big if, but if he were able to gain traction, he could shape the race and the issues the candidates are talking about,” Dancey said.
Visconti captured 1.76 percent of the delegate votes at the Connecticut Republican Party convention in May.