Elections 2010

California wasn't always a two-party impasse

Florida's Senate race is notable not for having a former governor abandon the gubernatorial race to run for a seat, but that he left his party behind to run as an Independent - and he's got a good chance of winning.

The former governor has been described as the moderate between the polar convictions of his opponents, Republican candidate Mario Rubio and Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek; accordingly, Crist has also been criticized for sitting on the fence and flip-flopping on issues.

In today's polarized political climate, a three-member race seems illogical, if not impossible: here in California, voters haven't elected a third-party candidate in over a hundred years. Unfortunately, California's senate race history hasn't been stored by respected news or journal outlets - not even on government websites.

If you want to know which candidates ran for California's two seats, you'll need to tread in the ambiguously legitimate waters of Wikipedia, which cites sources from print media long since stored away (but not accessible online, alas). Risk Wikipedia, however, and several apocryphal stories of real candidates will get your attention.

For starters, novelist Upton Sinclair ran under the Socialist party two years after a failed bid for a California seat in the House of Representatives and eighteen years after the publication of his famous novel, The Jungle. He won 50,000 votes.

Most famous - or infamous, if you were his target - was Methodist pastor, radio host and demagogue Robert Pierce "Fighting Bob" Shuler. Shuler broadcast from Trinity Methodist Church in Los Angeles and attracted a following as he blasted local elected officials, minorities and Catholics on his radio station KGEF from 1920 to 1931, when the Federal Radio Commission revoked his broadcasting license for offensive content.

Shuler announced his intention to run for California senator under the Prohibition Party and received 25.8 percent of the popular vote, but lost to William Gibbs McAdoo, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. An apocryphal story claims that Shular cursed the state of California after he lost, which some claim caused the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

Although she didn't carry Shuler's significant constituency, Charlotte Anita Whitney was convicted of syndicalism in 1920 and imprisoned for association with the International Workers of the World and Communist International. Her conviction improved her notoriety and she mustered 99,000 votes in her 1950 campaign for senator under the Communist party.

Interestingly, in the same race, two Democrats opposed freshman Republican candidate Richard Nixon, who won largely through smear tactics on his main opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and earned the nickname "Tricky Dick" from his rival.

The next race in 1952 held a much more wholesome candidate, Republican William F. Knowland, a veteran of World War II. So wholesome was Knowland that he won both political parties' primaries in a process called cross-filing (abolished in California in 1959); Knowland defeated his only opponent, Independent Progressive candidate Reuben W. Borough, with 88 percent of the vote and carried 57 of 58 counties in California.

No California candidate has won so soundly since 1952, nor has a third-party candidate posed such a serious threat as "Fighting Bob" - which begs the question: is there room for a middleground in California politics today?

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