GOP Moderates Spearheading a Third Party Option

Stomach-punched into depression by that bruising Republican primary for Delaware's open U.S. Senate seat, Rep. Mike Castle (R) chewed on an independent write-in bid for the general election. The name-brand Delaware politician - who also served two years as Governor - refused to endorse the new school Tea Party upstart-turned-GOP-nominee Christine O'Donnell after his embarrassing defeat to her.

For a minute, before he self-punked himself this past week by dropping out, the First State's Castle political machine appeared poised for a knuckle-up against both O'Donnell and the equally popular New Castle County Executive Chris Coons (D). Old school in-the-box conventionalism probably stepped in because some felt Castle has a good shot. For one, his name was easy to spell in a state of three counties familiar with the strong name ID. And, there is skepticism that, regardless of all this talk about O'Donnell as an injection of fresh and new, it's abundantly tough for a rabble-rousing conservative firebrand to get elected in a place like Delaware. The upsets we've witnessed thus far on the political landscape might be dramatic and a sign of voter discontent, but they are no clear indication of outcomes in the general election.

Still, O'Donnell is enjoying a lead in public relations, national attention drawn to her unorthodox political profile. Negative publicity, Bill Maher's clown notwithstanding, is better than none. For candidates, that fuels campaign contributions, cash that comes in handy in that expensive Philadelphia-area media market.

But, there is a larger cautionary tale emerging from the Castle bid that merits further examination. On the other side of the continent is bitter incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who lost a hotly contested Alaska Senate primary to an underfunded Joe Milller (R), another insurgent candidate also backed by former Governor-turned-political-tsunami Sarah Palin. Murkowski's last stand effort at a write-in campaign possibly overestimates her name ID - since it's not as easy to spell as Castle. But, the underlying point, in comparing Murkowski and Castle, is that we may be seeing a movement of moderate Republicans becoming Independents, forced out of necessity to create an unofficial "third party" movement.

We're already seeing real signs of that in current Gov. Charlie Crist's (I) non-write-in bid for Florida's U.S. Senate seat as a former GOP insider who one day grew tired of uncertain back-and-forth with stalwart conservative peers. Clearly, irate and impatient red state activists on the right liked what they saw in Marco Rubio. Crist would have watched in futility as his chances for Senate retirement would have disintegrated in the cauldron of primary day tempestuousness.

There is something attractive about that, particularly considering recent Gallup surveys that show 58% of Americans are open to the proposition of a third party. Still, this is not the third party expected; folks probably think of brand new political activists hitting the scene to pitch larger themes of reform and the extinction of the "career politician." In these instances, you have career politicians desperate to save their gigs. But, it's still refreshing that high profile candidates are leaning in that direction in attempts that could encourage the larger body politic to think outside of the electoral box and seriously consider third party bids.

Not only is that creative, it's needed. Something has to shake up the two party-dominated system in such a way that it sends a clear message to lawmakers about what's truly important beyond their political CVs. And there are hints that other moderate Republicans could be victims of inter-party conflict as Tea Party conservatives have already set their sights on Senators Susan Collins (R) and Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine in the next cycle. While that's unsettling to Collins and Snowe, both steadfastly loyal to the GOP, it presents an opportunity should they become independent out of frustration and caucus with others like Castle, Murkowski and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont. It may add some sorely needed and buffering balance to a polarized Senate.

The Tea Party itself is a third party movement, spawning fractious offshoots from a tattered Republican Party collapsing on itself. Although conventional wisdom is quick to call it a "wing" of the GOP, it's really a fast-growing new party seeking control of the RNC's operational platform. Rather than start a party from scratch, Tea Party activists - formerly with the Republican Party - are simply using the networks they know.

That said, there is a greater risk to shaking up the two party system that we haven't seen since the Whig party of old broke into multiple factions before ultimately organizing the Republican Party in 1854. All this occurred, like now, during a period of great economic distress and political upheaval as states, Congress and the President battled furiously over the future of slavery in the United States. And we know how that ended.