Third Party Candidates and Independents

a Libertarian was on the ballot in the 2018 race for the US Senate
a Libertarian was on the ballot in the 2018 race for the US Senate
Source: Prince William County, Sample Ballot (November 6, 2018)

The Republican and Democratic parties dominate politics in Virginia, but independents have succeeded in getting elected occasionally. The most significant races in which an Independent was elected were in 1970 and 1976, when Senator Harry Byrd Jr. won re-election while avoiding being labeled as a Republican or as a Democrat.

In theory, all candidates for local School Board seats and for Soil and Water Conservation Districts run as independents, since those races are supposed to be non-partisan. The ballots for those offices do not list the political affiliation of the candidates. In practice, political parties endorse candidates in almost all races, and volunteers associated with the parties are key in getting out the vote for such low-turnout races.

In addition to the Democratic and Republican parties, there are other organized political parties who field candidates regularly in Virginia.

The Independent Greens of Virginia have pushed one particular transportation solution, "More Trains, Less Traffic!" Between 2005-15, the party ran one candidate for local, state, and Federal offices, Gail Parker. She identified herself as "Gail for Rail" and ran unsuccessfully for:1
2005 Virginia House of Delegates 44th District
2006 U.S. Senate
2007 Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Chair
2008 U.S. Senate
2009 Virginia House of Delegates 44th District
2010 U.S. House of Representatives, 1st District
2011 Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Mt. Vernon District
2012 U.S. House of Representatives 1st District
2013 Virginia House of Delegates 43rd District
2014 U.S. House of Representatives 1st District
2015 Fairfax County Board of Supervisors

the Independent Greens of Virginia have nominated Gail for Rail Parker for multiple offices
the Independent Greens of Virginia have nominated Gail for Rail Parker for multiple offices
Source: Green Party for Rail to Belvoir

The Libertarian Party was organized enough in 2008 to get eight candidates on the ballot in Virginia's 11 Congressional districts. To get those candidates into the races, the party had to collect 1,000 signatures from qualified voters in each Congressional District. That required having a sufficient number of volunteers, or sufficient funding to pay contractors, to collect valid signatures.

That third party earned 6.5% of the total vote in the 2013 race for governor of Virginia, but numbers then dropped to 2.4% in the 2014 Senate race and 1.1% in the 2017 governor's race. In 2018, it qualified candidates to run for the US Senate, in three districts for the US House of Representatives, and for Hampton City Council.2

in 2018, the Libertarian Party candidate for US Senate was Matt Waters
in 2018, the Libertarian Party candidate for US Senate was Matt Waters
Source: Matt Waters

In the 1965 race for governor, the Conservative Party candidate William J. Story attracted over 13% of the statewide vote and won 12 counties. His appeal was to segregationists, at a time when both the Democratic and Republican candidates were seeking support from black voters. The head of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, also got on the ballot. His 5,000 votes were another reflection of the support for legal segregation at that time.

in the 1965 election, the third-party Conservative candidate won Southside counties (brown) and Mountain-Valley Republicans won western jurisdictions (red)
in the 1965 election, the third-party Conservative candidate won Southside counties (brown) and Mountain-Valley Republicans won western jurisdictions (red)
Source: Wikipedia, Virginia Gubernatorial Election, 1965

In 1969, the Conservative Party nominated candidates again for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. They received less than 2% of the vote, in what turned out to be the last races for that party. Also in 1969, the American Independent Party associated with George Wallace ran a candidate for governor, while an individual (George R. Walker) also got his name on the ballot without associating with any party. Those two independent candidates received less than 1% of the vote.3

The Reform Party organized after H. Ross Perot ran for President in 1992, but has not gotten candidates onto the ballot. It has used its status to advocated for some policies, and unsuccessfully sought to draft former Senator Jim Webb to run as a Reform Party candidate in 2016.4

Collecting signatures is expensive and a drain on volunteers who might otherwise be generating support from voters. Nominees of some political parties are not required to go though the signature collection process. For the statewide offices of US Senate, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, nominees not associated with a recognized political party must get 10,000 signatures, including at least 400 signatures from qualified voters in each of the 11 congressional districts.

The dream of a third party in Virginia to be considered as a "party" which does not need to collect signatures to get candidates on the ballot. The threshold to be a "party," as defined the Code of Virginia, is to earn 10% of the vote for a statewide office:5

"Party" or "political party" means an organization of citizens of the Commonwealth which, at either of the two preceding statewide general elections, received at least 10 percent of the total vote cast for any statewide office filled in that election. The organization shall have a state central committee and an office of elected state chairman which have been continually in existence for the six months preceding the filing of a nominee for any office.

Independent candidates not associated with any political party can get on the ballot. Candidates never backed by a political party have a difficult time getting name recognition, and rarely attract more than a smattering of votes. Virginia has yet to see a race where an extremely rich person self-funds a race for office as an independent and wins.

Other than the success of Senator Harry Byrd Jr., the most significant impact of an independent candidate was in 1994. Marshall Coleman pulled enough votes away from the Republican nominee for US Senate, Oliver North, to allow Sen. Chuck Robb to win re-election.

Robb spent $5 million and got 45.6% of the vote as the Democratic Party nominee. Oliver North, as the Republican Party nominee, spent $18 million and got 42.9%. The spoiler in the race, Marshall Coleman, had been elected as Attorney General in 1977 and been the Republican candidate for governor in 1981 and 1989. He received 11.4% of the vote, primarily from Republicans who could not support the party's nominee.

Both Robb and North were damaged candidates in 1994. Robb's extramarital affairs allowed North to link him closely with President Bill Clinton, in a year when a wave election led by Newt Gingrich gave Republicans control of the US House of Representatives for the first time since 1956. North had been part of the Iran-contra affair, though on appeal his felony conviction for telling lies to Congress while under oath was overturned.

Robb attacked North's character throughout the race, at one point labeling him as:6

...a document-shredding, Constitution-trashing, Commander in Chief-bashing, Congress-thrashing, uniform-shaming, Ayatollah-loving, arms-dealing, criminal-protecting, resume-enhancing, Noriega-coddling, Society Security-threatening, public school-denigrating, Swiss-banking-law-breaking, letter-faking, self-serving, election-losing, snake-oil salesman who can't tell the difference between the truth and a lie.

Traditional Republican leaders, including Senator John W. Warner and former President Ronald Reagan, refused to support North. Nancy Reagan's condemnation twelve days before election day was seen by pundits as the turning point in the race. Republicans who intended to vote in their district's US House of Representatives race that year, but could not support Oliver North for the US Senate, had the option of voting for a well-known Republican who did not happen to be the official nominee of the Republican Party.

Marshall Coleman argued that a vote for him would not be a wasted vote, which is the standard argument against independent and third-party candidates. He claimed a vote for him would be a principled vote:7

You can choose to re-elect Chuck Robb for another term of tepid, part-time representation that backstops Bill Clinton's vision of bigger government, higher taxes and stronger controls over our everyday lives...

You can choose Oliver North, whose dark vision of confrontational politics comports with his history of disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law...

You can choose Marshall Coleman.

Source: You Tube

In certain cases the independence of candidates is highly questionable. In 2018, two races demonstrated how political partisans can try to siphon votes away from an opponent by assisting a so-called independent candidate.

In the Second Congressional District, the incumbent Republican Rep. Scott Taylor anticipated a close race for re-election. After the Democratic primary, his staff assisted the losing candidate, Shaun Brown, in an effort to get her on the ballot as a independent. The hope was that Democratic voters would split their votes between the party nominee and the "independent" Shaun Brown. Dividing the Democrats might allow the Republican to win, with perhaps less than 50% of the total vote but more than either opponent.

Shaun Brown had been the official Democratic candidate in 2016, and she lost that election by 23 points. In 2018, Elaine Luria defeated her in the Democratic primary, but Shaun Brown still had broad name recognition as a Democrat. Staffers working for the Republican candidate helped her gather the 1,000 signatures needed to get her name on the 2018 ballot as an independent.

The plan backfired because the public radio station WHRO and then The Virginian-Pilot examined the petitions submitted to the Virginia Department of Elections. They found forged signatures, including those of four dead people. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Democratic Party of Virginia, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled the petitions to get Shaun Brown on the ballot as an independent were invalid. The judge declared the petitions were "out and out fraud" and blocked her from being listed on the ballot as a candidate in the Second Congressional District.

a judge invalidated all of the petitions with signatures to get the independent Congressional candidate on the ballot in 2018
a judge invalidated all of the petitions with signatures to get the "independent" Congressional candidate on the ballot in 2018
Source: Scribd, Democratic Party of Virginia v. Piper

In the general election, the Democratic candidate Elaine Luria won. The Republican Rep. Scott Taylor got 48.82% of the vote, while his one opponent - the Democratic nominee - got 51.04%. Her margin of victory was 6,050 votes. If the Republican plan had succeeded and 5% of the Democrats had voted for the "independent," then Rep. Scott Taylor would have been re-elected rather than defeated. The special prosecutor pursuing the felony charges filed against the campaign staffers said the case would eventually come to trial, but:8

There's no hurry... It looks to me like there already was some poetic justice served down there in Virginia Beach to Mr. Taylor.

A Democratic operative was more successful in that same year, siphoning perhaps enough votes from a Republican candidate to flip an election.

Three candidates were listed on the ballot for chair of the Prince William County School Board. Though the seats on the School Board are theoretically non-partisan and ballots do not identify the party affiliations of candidates, the Republicans endorsed one candidate and the Democrats endorsed another. A third candidate, Stanley Bender, received no endorsement from either party and hardly campaigned.

in the 2018 School Board race in Prince William, party affiliations were not listed next to names of the three candidates
in the 2018 School Board race in Prince William, party affiliations were not listed next to names of the three candidates
Source: Prince William County, Sample Ballot (November 6, 2018)

The Democratic candidate defeated the Republican candidate by 10,043 votes. The third person on the ballot, Stanley Bender, received 14,351 votes - almost 10% of the total. His vote total may have been due to a last-minute effort by the former chair of the county's Democratic Party. That operative created a political action committee (PAC) after the last date to report campaign contributions before the election, then had "Republicans For Stanley Bender" signs posted at polling places.

That school board race had received little media coverage, and a significant number of Republican voters were probably unaware that Stanley Bender was not the officially-endorsed candidate. He raised only $100 and spent none of it. In contrast, the Democratic candidate spent $90,000 and the Republican candidate spent $14,000.

On election day, the "Republicans For Stanley Bender" signs were a surprise. Because they were posted by a legitimate, registered political action committee, the outraged Prince William Republican Party could not legally remove any of the signs that day. The Republican Party later claimed that the candidate had not authorized the committee and called for an investigation by the State Board of Elections, but that occurred after the vote was certified.

Three weeks after the election, the local Commonwealth’s Attorney announced that a special prosecutor would investigate the political action committee

The last-minute sign campaign was designed to split the Republican vote. Getting Republican supporters to vote for a third candidate, not the person actually running with Republican Party support, may have enabled the Democratic candidate to win with less than 50% of the total vote. However, that third-party candidate got 10% of the absentee vote, suggesting the election-day signs may not have increased his share of the vote.9

The Fighting Ninth Congressional District in Southwest Virginia

Virginia Political Parties



1. "Ernest Benn," The Quotations Page, (last checked August 21, 2014)
2. "Byrd Leaves Party in Virginia Over Democratic Loyalty Oath," New York Times, March 18, 1970, (last checked September 23, 2018)
3. "Two-Time Va. Gov. Mills Godwin Dies," Washington Post, February 1, 1999,; James R. Sweeney & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, "Mills E. Godwin (1914–1999)," Encyclopedia Virginia, December 19, 2016, (last checked September 23, 2018)
4. "After thrills of wave election, Virginia's freshmen Democrats see most of their bills die in GOP-controlled House," Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 17, 2018,; "2018 November General," Virginia Department of Elections, (last checked November 12, 2018)
5. "Republicans haven't won statewide in Virginia since 2009. Tuesday's Senate primary shows why," CNN, June 9, 2018, (last checked June 11, 2018)
6. "Commentary: A changing Virginia - and an unchanging Republican Party," Free Lance-Star, November 10, 2018, (last checked November 12, 2018)
1. "Gail for Rail Parker," Independent Green Party of Virginia, (last checked September 23, 2018)
2. "2014 U.S. Senate General Election," Elections Database, Virginia State Board of Elections,; "2017 Governor General Election," Elections Database, Virginia State Board of Elections,; "Hoping for a gold rush: Virginia Libertarian Party sees opportunity in Congressional races," Virginia Mercury, September 24, 2018,; "Candidates," Libertarian Party of Virginia, 2018, (last checked September 23, 2018)
3. "Reform Party of Virginia Launches Draft Jim Webb 2016 Campaign," Reform Party of Virginia, November 22 2015, (last checked September 23, 2018)
4. "1965 Election Results: Omens for Liberal Republicans," CQAlmanac, 1965,; "VA Governor (1965)," Our Campaigns,; "Virginia Conservative," Our Campaigns, (last checked September 23, 2018)
5. Code of Virginia, "Title 24.2. Elections » Chapter 5. Candidates for Office » § 24.2-506. Petition of qualified voters required; number of signatures required; certain towns excepted,"; Code of Virginia, "Title 24.2. Elections » Chapter 1. General Provisions and Administration » § 24.2-101. Definitions," (last checked September 23, 2018)
6. "The 1994 Elections: The Senate Virginia; After a Bitter Campaign, Voters Stick With Robb," New York Times, November 9, 1994,; "J. Marshall Coleman (I)," Elections Database, Virginia Department of Elections, (last checked November 14, 2018)
7. "Coleman Maintains Stance As Alternative," Daily Press, November 7, 1994, (last checked November 14, 2018)
8. "4 dead people, 59 fraudulent signatures found on petitions filed by Scott Taylor's campaign," The Virginian-Pilot, August 24, 2018,; "Scott Taylor Served ‘Poetic Justice’ in Election Loss, Prosecutor Says," Roll Call, November 9, 2018; "Investigation into petition signatures submitted by Scott Taylor's staff presses on," The Virginian-Pilot, November 8, 2018,; "Judge orders independent candidate off the ballot in Va. congressional race, citing ‘out and out fraud’," Washington Post, September 5, 2018,; "2018 November General," Virginia Department of Elections, (last checked November 12, 2018)
9. "GOP Claims ‘Republicans for Stanley Bender’ Signs Are Fraudulent," Bristow Beat, November 6, 2018,; "2018 November General," Virginia Department of Elections,; "Prince William Republicans seek state investigation into school board chairman election," Washington Post, November 16, 2018,; "Commonwealth’s attorney will name special prosecutor to investigate PAC," Prince William Times, November 27, 2018,; "Special prosecutor proposed following election complaint," InsideNOVA, November 30, 2018, (last checked December 3, 2018)

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