A week before the 1990 gubernatorial primary, Democratic candidate Mark White was feeling positive about his chances. His polls showed him ahead of Ann Richards and Jim Mattox, his two competitors — even if it was only by one percentage point.
But that Monday, Richards unleashed a devastating ad that savaged both White and Mattox. And it was White, not Mattox, who felt himself dropping. When the election came a week later, White was just what he didn’t want to be: the spoiler who forced his competitors into a runoff, ruining someone's chance for a first-round win without getting into the finals himself.
Debra Medina, currently in third place in the Republican primary, has already been called a spoiler. Currently polling around 12 percent, she could easily force Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison into a runoff. She'll tell you she's not in it for that; she wants the GOP nomination, and in fact, didn't run as an Independent because she didn't think she could win that way.
Many Democrats called Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn spoilers after their independent bids for governor ended with another term for Perry and a poor showing for Democrat Chris Bell. Strayhorn didn't respond to requests for an interview, but Friedman, now running for Agriculture Commissioner, said he didn't doom Bell.
“I thought I pulled equally from both [parties],” said the author-cum-candidate.
In fact, Bell’s then-campaign manager, Jason Stanford, said Friedman helped more than hurt the Democratic efforts.
“A million people watched the debate... I don’t think if it had just been Chris Bell and Rick Perry a million people would have been dying to watch it on a Friday night,” said Stanford. “He made the election a little easier for us.”
Friedman insists that he never saw himself as a potential spoiler for Bell. Rather, he believed he could win the race — and that he would have, had he run as Democrat.
“I think we would have won in a landslide,” he said.
Other third-party candidates set the bar a little lower.
“The expectations we try to set are not necessarily getting to office,” said Pat Dixon, the head of the Libertarian Party of Texas, “but we want numbers to go in a positive direction.”
Dixon doesn’t care if his candidates take votes away from the major parties. You can’t spoil an election if the mainstream parties are already rotten, he said.
“[Spoiling] would be a concern if there were candidates on the ballot on either the Democratic or Republican parties who were really close enough that we would rather have them in office,” he said. Dixon pointed to the fact that Libertarians often do not run against U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who represents the more libertarian element of the Republican Party, and who was the Libertarian Party candidate for president in 1988. Ironically, this year, a Libertarian will be challenging Paul for his seat.
Dixon advocated a different type of voting system, in which voters could check all the candidates they approved of, rather than only voting for their favorite. He said it would be friendlier to third parties, and offer voters more options. Furthermore, “in that voting system there would be no spoiler,” he said. In the current system, Dixon says Libertarians are equal opportunity spoilers — they don’t just take votes from the Republican candidates.
“Now with Democrats sort of in their ascendency, that’s going to change,” Dixon said. He pointed to his party’s stances on social issues, which are often more in line with Democratic policy.
Spoiling a race must be unpleasant. Right?
“There are some who work very hard and maybe some of them have unreasonable expectations sometimes,” Dixon said. Still, the unexpected power such candidates bring can force competitors to learn some tough lessons. For the Bell campaign, Stanford said the answer was obvious but tough to swallow: “You can’t ever assume that your voters are yours without the asking."
What of Friedman’s assertion that he could have been governor if only he’d run as a Democrat?
“Kinky Friedman might have been a way for Dems to park their pathological dispirited-ness,” Stanford said. “What a fun way to give up.”