With little hope of winning, third-party candidates aim high anyway

By: - September 21, 2021 7:04 am

Brian Kulas, pictured during a protest, is a third-party candidate running for a state Assembly seat in Middlesex County’s 18th District.

Brian Kulas is an engaged citizen, by any measure.

Kulas has testified before the Legislature on everything from wage theft to the minimum wage to earned paid sick leave. He has given speeches beside lawmakers at bill signings. He was among the hundreds of people arrested in 2018 during Capitol protests and sit-ins before Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wanting to do more, he decided to run for public office, inspired by President Obama’s 2017 call to action to those disappointed by their elected officials to “grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.” He is now a candidate for the New Jersey Assembly in Middlesex County’s 18th District.

Brian Kulas, pictured during a protest, is a third-party candidate running for a state Assembly seat in Middlesex County’s 18th District. (Courtesy photo)

But Kulas, 44, of East Brunswick, has no plans for a victory party.

“The likelihood of me actually winning? I have a better chance of walking on Mars in my lifetime,” he said.

Kulas is a third-party candidate, running in the “An Inspired Advocate Party” — a party he invented — in a heavily Democratic district.

Third-party candidates rarely win public office, at any level. None have won a state or federal race in New Jersey in at least the past decade.

Yet, plenty still run. An analysis by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics found 288 third-party candidates have run unsuccessfully for state or federal office in New Jersey since 2011. Twenty are on the ballot seeking statewide or legislative office in the upcoming Nov. 2 general election.

Shaking things up

Despite their dismal record, they’re critically important to the democratic process, experts say.

Micah Rasmussen is director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“Historically, we have seen that third-party candidates don’t have much of a chance. We can all think of the Jesse Ventura examples, but those are far and away the exception to the rule,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute. “But to have a democracy, voters need to have choices. We need people running, or we wouldn’t have elections.”

Third-party candidates can shape the conversation of a race and force main-party candidates to work harder for a win, pundits say. Just look at Ross Perot, an independent candidate who kept Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush scrambling to keep up with his populist message in the 1992 Presidential race.

“We don’t really see the third-party candidate as a viable option in the American political system just because of how our two-party system has been ingrained for centuries now. But third-party candidates can shake things up and move the needle a bit on policies and issues,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers.

Indeed, that’s why many run.

Nicholas Magner is a Libertarian running for state Assembly in Gloucester County’s Fourth district. (Courtesy photo)

“Running for office gives me a platform, and people can hear my ideas,” said Nicholas Magner, a Libertarian running for state Assembly in Gloucester County’s Fourth district. “If I speak out, maybe other people will feel comfortable speaking out as well. I feel really right doing this. That sounds so cheesy, but I feel like this is more about changing the culture than politics. It’s a long game.”

Jacob Selwood is a Libertarian candidate running for the state Assembly seat in the First District, which covers parts of Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland counties.

“If me running makes someone ask questions they wouldn’t normally ask about what’s going on in their community, then I’ve already won, because I’m getting more people involved in the decisions that are being made on their behalf,” Selwood said.

Jacob Selwood is a Libertarian candidate running for the state Assembly seat in the First District, which covers parts of Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. (Courtesy photo)

Third-party candidates have other reasons for running too.

Some feel unrepresented in the Legislature. Kulas and Dominique Faison, a Green Party candidate for the Assembly in Monmouth County’s 11th district, have grappled with homelessness and poverty.

“You can’t have somebody who grew up rich tell somebody who’s homeless what they need or what they should do. When you have things hand-fed to you, you don’t know the struggle,” Faison said. “I have had a tumultuous past, maybe six years where my children and I were homeless, and I just watched how the system failed me, one thing after another. We need some real change. I have literally been in the trenches, and that’s who you need to help make laws.”

Money and name recognition a problem

Others seek to draw attention to specific issues. Magner and Gregg Mele, a Libertarian running for governor, object to gun control and vowed to stop any legislation restricting gun rights, if elected. In a campaign ad on YouTube, the men shoot up a copy of New Jersey’s gun laws.

“An unruly government that is trying to force us to do things is coercion. Good ideas don’t require force,” said Magner, who also opposes government mandates, such as masking and vaccine requirements. “If that means people should disobey the government, then that’s what they should do.”

Dominique Faison is a Green Party candidate running for the state Assembly in Monmouth County’s 11th district. (Courtesy photo)

Third-party candidates face two major hurdles that Democrats and Republicans typically don’t: a lack of both name recognition and money.

“A lack of name recognition can be impossible to overcome, because people need to know who you are in order to vote for you,” Rasmussen said. “If they don’t know anything about the candidates, people lean back on their partisan cues in the ballot box.”

Candidates typically need money to make their names known, pundits agree. Yet without name recognition, fundraising can feel insurmountable, candidates say.

“I can’t even afford lawn signs or mail flyers,” Kulas said.

Because of such challenges, third-party candidates typically pull in just a few percent of all votes in any given race, and Rasmussen expects that will be even lower this year.

“Elections are considered so high-stakes now, and we have such a polarized environment that everybody is voting blue or red. I think we’re going to see just a trickle” of votes for third-party candidates, Rasmussen said. “People view it more as squandering your ability to stick it to the other guy if you do vote for a third-party.”

Despite the long odds, some remain defiantly hopeful.

“I have no other thoughts but winning,” Faison said. “When I speak of it, I’ve won already. In my mind, I’m already planning how I will serve.”

Meet the candidates

In the governor’s race, three third-party candidates are running against Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, and his Republican rival, Jack Ciattarelli.

  • Madelyn Hoffman, a Green Party candidate and Morris County resident, is a longtime environmental and social justice activist who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2020.
  • Gregg Mele, a Libertarian and Somerset County resident, is an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018.
  • Joanne Kuniansky, a Socialist Workers Party candidate, is a Walmart deli worker and union fighter who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Frank Lautenberg in 1994. She also ran for a U.S. Congress seat in Pennsylvania in 1992, and a state House seat in Texas in 1986.

For lieutenant governor, three third-party candidates are challenging Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, and her GOP opponent, Diane Allen.

  • Heather Warburton, a Green Party candidate who lives in South Jersey, is an artist, podcaster, and activist advocating for the environment and LGBTQ rights and against income inequality.
  • Eveline H. Brownstein, a Libertarian candidate who lives in Monmouth County, works in human resources.
  • Vivian Sahner is a Socialist Workers Party candidate.

Three third-party candidates are vying for state Senate seats.

  • Regina Discenza, a school board member in Lacey Township School District, is an Unaffiliated Best Choice Party candidate running against Democrat David Wright and Republican Christopher Connors in the 9th district, which covers parts of Atlantic, Burlington and Ocean counties.
  • Glenn Coley, a New Directions party candidate who’s politically active in Englewood, is challenging Democrat Gordon Johnson and Michael Koontz in Bergen County’s 37th District.
  • Libertarian James Tosone, a retired businessman who worked in the health care industry, will go up against Democrat Ruth Dugan and Republican Holly Schepisi in the 39th District, which covers parts of Bergen and Passaic counties.

Eleven third-party candidates are on the ballot for state Assembly seats.

  • Libertarians Michael Gallo and Jacob Selwood in the First District in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. Selwood is an Army combat veteran and former mechanic who now works at Lowe’s and is pursuing his commercial pilot’s license.
  • Libertarian Nicholas Magner in the Fourth District in Camden and Gloucester counties. Magner is a father of two, a blue-collar worker, and a self-described former “Bernie bro.”
  • Green Party candidate Dominique Faison in the 11th District in Monmouth County. Faison is a mother of nine, a former intake specialist for the Affordable Housing Alliance, and a self-help podcaster and coach who now makes home-based products like bath salts and sprays.
  • Michael Bollentin (For the People Party) in the 14th District in Mercer and Middlesex counties. Bollentin is an emergency medical technician, retired West Windsor Township police officer, and a middle school wrestling coach, according to his social media. 
  • Pedro Reyes in the 15th District (Vote for Pedro) in Hunterdon and Mercer counties.
  • Brian Kulas (An Inspired Advocate) and Libertarian David Awad in the 18th District in Middlesex County. Kulas is a part-time banquet server in Atlantic City. Awad is a software engineer and law student.
  • Debra Salters (Salters for All) in the 29th District in Essex County. Salters is a Newark native who’s studying geological science at Rutgers and is a partner with the Shani Baraka Resource Women’s Center, according to her website.
  • Clenard Childress Jr. (Stop the Insanity!) in the 34th District in Essex and Passaic counties. Childress is a Montclair Baptist pastor, anti-abortion activist, and perennial candidate.
  • Natacha Pannell (Children and Seniors First) in the 39th District in Bergen and Passaic counties. Pannell, whose brother was gunned down by a Teaneck cop in 1990, is an activist who worked to raise awareness about violence against people of color, according to NorthJersey.com. 

Nearly 300 third-party candidates have run for federal or state office in New Jersey in the past decade, but none have won.

A Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics analysis found that third-party candidate interest was greater in the beginning of the decade, with the most — 47 — running in 2012, compared with just 24 last year.

The institute also found:

  • Libertarian is the most popular party for independent candidates, with 51 Libertarian candidates in the past decade. The Green Party had 31 candidates run; Constitution Party, 11; Socialist, 6; Conservative, 6; and Reform Party, 2. Twenty candidates used the word “Independent” in their party name, while most made up slogans.
  • Ten candidates were repeat runners who accounted for 47 of the decade’s third-party candidacies. Hank Schroeder, a Central Jersey candidate who has run under several third-party names, appeared on the ballot seven times in the past decade, more than any other candidate. Edward “Weedman” Forchion may be the decade’s most famous, appearing on the ballot six times since 2011. Pablo Olivera ran six times too under slogans urging voters to “wake up” or support “unity.” Jeff Boss has run four times under the party name “NSA Did 911.”
  • South Jersey drew the most third-party Congressional candidates, with 19 in the state’s southernmost Second District and another 15 in the Philadelphia suburban First District.
  • The most votes cast for third-party candidates in New Jersey occurred in the 2016 Presidential election, when Libertarian Gary Johnson won 72,477 votes and the Green Party’s Jill Stein won 37,772 votes.
  • Third-party candidates seeking federal or state office in New Jersey averaged between a low of 928 in 2015 and a high of 7,946 in 2020.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.