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Spin Control: How much coverage does an independent candidate rate?

It’s a rare campaign season that doesn’t bring at least one complaint from a long-shot candidate who believes he or she deserves more coverage.

Such candidates often face severe funding limitations and poor name recognition, two conditions which usually go hand-in-hand. Sometimes they are members of one major political party running against an entrenched incumbent of the other party in a strongly partisan district. But more often they are independents or members of a third party, seeking to buck the establishment and give voters an alternative.

Case in point: Ted Cummings, an articulate and serious husband and father from Colbert, who operates a small ranch between shifts at Kaiser Aluminum. He is also running as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 2016 for the seat occupied by four-term incumbent Democrat Patty Murray.

Cummings wrote after last week’s column discussed the use of David and Goliath imagery in politics, using the example of Republican Chris Vance’s meager campaign coffers against Murray’s much larger stash of cash. While he objected mainly to the focus on money – a key tenet of his campaign is candidates should not be able to buy office – he also wondered if he didn’t merit a mention in the column.

This wasn’t an angry screed, and in a follow-up phone conversation Cummings was both thoughtful and amiable when discussing the fact that his campaign for the Senate is, at best, quixotic. But because this is a conversation political reporters have regularly with candidates, some of it warrants repeating here.

News coverage of a race doesn’t treat all candidates in every race equally, because it shouldn’t.

Any American citizen in Washington at least 30 years old can file next year for that U.S. Senate seat and appear on the ballot. The filing fee is 1 percent of the annual salary, or $1,700 – not exactly chump change, but not enough to signify a serious candidate by itself. Since 2000, the Senate race has averaged 11 candidates in the primary, including such choices as Mike The Mover, a Seattle-area businessman who shares his name with his company, and Goodspaceguy, who legally changed his name to emphasize his key issue, colonizing space. There are other perennial candidates who run for something each year, as if to scratch a special itch.

Barring some unexplainable shift in the political cosmos by next May, the candidate list will be similar. At that point, every story with a comment from Murray about congressional budget negotiations need not include Goodspaceguy’s thoughts on the deal.

That doesn’t really address Cummings, who is not a perennial candidate seeking attention for some business or pipe dream. His concerns about too much money in politics are shared by many people with incomes below George Soros or the Koch brothers, and he’s asking a reasonable if time-worn question for voters when taking on a sitting official: Are we better off than when the incumbent was first elected? (Admittedly, that works better in a presidential race, because quite a bit has happened to the country and most voters since she was elected in 1992. But still.)

“I get that I can be lumped in with a bunch of nuts,” he said. “I just have to try. If I get nowhere, I get nowhere. I’ll do what I can with the funds I have, and have people tell me why it’s so absurd.”

Not absurd, just highly unlikely. Since Washington statehood, no independent has won a statewide partisan office. We’ve sent a few Populists and Progressives to Congress, and Populists swept every executive office below governor in 1896. Since then, winners have had a D or R after their name.

Cummings argues that if there ever was a time the electorate’s dissatisfaction with the major parties provided an opening, this is it. He might be right, but the deck is stacked against that leading to victory for him or any other independent. The top-two primary, which the major parties fought against and still claim to hate, makes it all but impossible for an independent to make the general election ballot if the primary features one member of each party, or two members of the same party in a district drawn to be “safe” for that party. In the days of the old blanket primary, they could at least stick around for November after reaching a small threshold in the primary.

Although he plans a low-budget campaign, Cummings has registered with the Federal Elections Commission, an early test of a serious candidate. But the bigger test is filing paperwork with the state and paying the filing fee, which can’t happen until May. Many announced candidates change their minds before that.

After a good conversation with Cummings, Spin Control promised he would get some serious coverage of his issues if he files for Senate next May. Likely not equal to Murray and Vance, or whoever the leading GOP nominee will be, unless he begins to generate the kind of “buzz” that make him viable. It’s admittedly a chicken-and-egg situation; one can’t get coverage without the buzz, and struggles for buzz without coverage. But a few candidates like Ross Perot and John Anderson managed it on a national level. Anyone who begins to crack that nut on the state level deserves, and will get, coverage.

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