As Americans head to the polls later today, it’ll be interesting to see if a genuine dark-horse candidate — somebody running outside the duopoly, someone nobody expected nor even heard of, for that matter — could startle the pundits with an unexpectedly strong showing.
Given the extreme partisanship and polarization of American politics, it would probably be a healthy development.
That was the case in 1992 — the same year Texas billionaire Ross Perot threw a genuine scare into the two-party establishment — when little-known Martha K. Grevatt, a member of the Workers World Party, a tiny sect that had split off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1959, unexpectedly polled more than 300,000 votes against former astronaut and three-term Democratic Senator John Glenn of Ohio and his Republican challenger Mike DeWine.
Nobody saw it coming.
Remarkably, the 35-year-old Grevatt, who had been routinely ignored by Ohio media outlets throughout the campaign, raised less than $5,000 in her uphill bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate that autumn.
Her candidacy was virtually blacked out by the state’s leading newspapers, radio and television stations.
“We feel there’s no justification for the spare amount of coverage we’ve received,” said Grevatt, a tool-and-dye maker at Chrysler’s Stamping Plant near Cleveland who billed herself as the first openly lesbian candidate to run for the U.S. Senate from Ohio.
“The voters have a right to know who the candidates are and what they stand for,” she said.
She was right.
“There have been two small news articles we know of and three radio interviews, but no television interviews,” she said from her home in Cleveland shortly before embarking on a statewide tour in mid-October.
She was also excluded from the televised debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters that year because her name hadn’t been included in any of the polls, thereby making it impossible to reach the arbitrary 15 percent threshold for inclusion. She also couldn’t afford to commission a poll of her own and — even if she could — probably wouldn’t have been able to break through that lofty barrier.
Consequently, nobody knew she was running.
All of the attention that year was focused on the bitter brawl between Sen. Glenn and the 45-year-old DeWine, a former four-term congressman from Cedarville. It was a particularly nasty and negative campaign — and by far the toughest of Glenn’s three reelection campaigns. Successfully separating the politician from the space hero, DeWine kept Glenn on the defensive the entire campaign, focusing his attacks on the senator’s $3 million debt from his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and — much more damaging — his ties to imprisoned Savings & Loan swindler Charles Keating.
At one point, the DeWine campaign ran television ads featuring the “energizer bunny,” depicting Glenn as a rabbit in a spacesuit and sunglasses while pounding a drum bearing his name. Glenn responded in kind, running negative ads attacking DeWine for, among other things, bouncing no fewer than 31 checks and accepting questionable honoraria.
Against this backdrop, Grevatt — a longtime member of the United Auto Workers — waged a below-the-radar campaign, quietly distributing leaflets at various campaign stops. She also made numerous appearances on college campuses, but her name was rarely, if ever, mentioned in any newspaper articles about the sickeningly brutal and negative slugfest between the first American to orbit the Earth and the state’s mean-spirited, mudslinging lieutenant governor.
A reporter for the Associated Press finally wrote a wire story about her low-key candidacy in October, about three weeks before the election, but few newspapers bothered to carry it.
Denouncing her two major-party rivals as privileged white males who couldn’t care less about poor and working-class Ohioans, Grevatt’s left-wing, fervently pro-choice platform called for increased funding for rape crisis centers and women’s shelters. She also supported a sharp increase in welfare spending, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
In keeping with her party’s platform, she also called for the nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry, a ban on layoffs, a $10-an-hour minimum wage, free health care and day care, and full civil rights for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people, as well as those suffering with AIDS. She also advocated the elimination of all military spending.
Grevatt’s politics were clearly far to the left of most Ohioans, yet on election night the little-known Workers World Party candidate, who was listed on the ballot as an independent, polled nearly seven percent of the vote against her heavily-funded Democratic and Republican rivals, garnering an eye-popping 321,234 votes.
Running on a shoestring budget, Grevatt received more raw votes than eight of the men, including Nevada’s Harry Reid, who were elected or reelected to the U.S. Senate that year.
For several hours, in fact, it appeared as if the little-known socialist — a person most Ohio voters had never heard of, including thousands who only hours earlier had cast a protest vote for her without really knowing anything about her — might even poll the difference between Glenn and DeWine.
As the results trickled in, reporters in Ohio desperately tried to learn more about this mystery candidate who seemingly came out of nowhere and appeared to be on the verge of determining the outcome of one of the country’s most closely-watched and competitive Senate races.
“Who is this woman?” they asked themselves as they scrambled for information about the little-known autoworker. Little could be found since hardly a word had been published about her candidacy.
It spoke volumes about the media’s role in American politics.
John Glenn eventually won that election by slightly more than 400,000 votes, but that didn’t stop DeWine’s campaign manager — or “DeWhine,” as his critics called him — from later partially blaming Grevatt’s third-party candidacy on his own candidate’s defeat in that bitterly-contested race.
Nobody was more surprised by her relatively strong showing than Grevatt herself. It was an impressive electoral performance by any standard, not to mention the strongest showing in the history of her proud but puny Marxist party.
A complete surprise to political observers, the little-remembered Grevatt, who now lives in Detroit where she’s active with UAW Local 122 and was heavily involved in the Occupy movement, turned out to be the perfect protest candidate.
She wasn’t John Glenn and she wasn’t Mike DeWine.
She was merely the only other name on the ballot.