2017: Centrist Project Year in Review

One day, when we look back on the movement to elect independent candidates to office, we will likely see 2017 as a turning point.

It was the year that, on the heels of the 2016 election, a sufficient numbers of Americans finally looked at both political parties and concluded there must be a better way.

In 2017, Gallup found a record high number of the number of Americans who identify as independent (45%) and who believe both parties do such a poor job of representing the people that a third is needed (61%).

And it was the year that a scrappy, civic startup called the Centrist Project was in a unique position to translate this growing energy and imagination into a tangible network, infrastructure, and slate of candidates necessary to take the failing political duopoly head-on.

In June, the Centrist Project opened its HQ in our target state of Colorado. Read our profile in Colorado Politics.

The Centrist Project ends the year with a level of progress, strength and growth that was virtually unimaginable just a year ago, including:

  • Over a dozen credible declared or potential candidates for U.S. Senate, Governor, and state legislature in our endorsement pipeline;
  • $3 million+ raised to support our movement, including $100k+ contributed from small donors alone;
  • 20,000+ new supporters and over two dozen new local chapters fueling our movement at a grassroots level;
  • Two new partnerships with state-based organizations in Maine and Washington;
  • Six new staff at a new headquarters in Denver, CO bringing experience from Democratic, Republican, and independent backgrounds;

These accomplishments are shared among our entire community — every new Founding Member who chipped in a small monthly contribution, every new volunteer who showed up to meet likeminded voters in their community, every new candidate who answered the call of country above party, every donor who decided the return on investment that matters to them most is fixing our political system, and every new staffer who left a comfortable job to take a risk and make an impact.

Ultimately, 2018 will bear fruit from the seeds that were planted this year –– benefiting from some deliberate gardening and the good fortune of an ideal climate. Both are indispensable.

What we are setting out to achieve in 2018 and beyond is entirely possible. In Maine, for example, we saw how two independents who were elected in 2016 helped to catalyze five more incumbents of both parties to unenroll in 2017. Now, neither party can pass legislation without the support of the independents or the other party.

That’s the “Fulcrum Strategy” in action. It’s already happening.

Meet Maine’s Indy’s. Top: Owen Casas of Rockport; Denise Harlow of Portland; Kevin Battle of South Portland. Bottom: Kent Ackley of Monmouth; Norman Higgins of Dover-Foxcroft; Marty Grohman of Biddeford.

As the Portland Press Herald reported just this week:

“[T]he independent caucus doesn’t always agree on all things, but they do take the time to try to understand opposing viewpoints and work hard to find compromise, especially around policy changes they all agree are sound.”

We can do this in other states, and we can do this in Congress.

The Centrist Project is the only organization in the country that is squarely dedicated to recruiting and supporting independent candidates for office, and we need your continued support to scale and succeed.

We know that if our movement makes at least as much progress next year as we did this year, we will change the face of American politics forever. Please be in touch if you are interested in learning more and getting involved: nick@centristproject.org.


Candidates, Candidates, Candidates

For a movement whose theory of change rests upon electing people to office, our work all comes to down to finding high quality candidates to support.

We spent most of the year scouring communities across our target state of Colorado for state legislative candidates and states across the country for U.S. Senate and Governor candidates — with an eye on finding extraordinary leaders who: (i) have strong character & integrity, (ii) are aligned with our principles & approach to governance, and (iii) have a potential path to victory.

Sometimes, they find us. More than 200 individuals have signed up to run for office as independents directly on our website.

One wrote to us back in June:

“I like what I do now, but I feel compelled to get off of the sidelines and take an active role in making our democracy more effective at tackling today’s problems and restoring our governing institutions for the future.”

He will soon announce an independent campaign for State Representative in Colorado.

In December, Joel Searby (green) facilitated a meeting of Senate & Governor candidates who gathered in Denver to discuss uniting principles.

Sometimes, we find them. Joel Searby, known endearingly to some as the “most rejected man in America”, came to the Centrist Project in January as our Senior Strategist to lead national candidate recruitment after managing Evan McMullin’s independent presidential campaign.

For example, after reading the Centrist Manifesto, the book that launched our movement, Maryland businessman Neal Simon knew ours was an idea whose time has come. We entered extensive conversations in September about what a campaign could look like, and he launched an exploratory committee for U.S. Senate in December, saying: “We need leaders who are focused on bringing people together at this time when so many are intent on dividing us.”

Other times, we find each other. Increasingly, talented candidates are launching their own campaigns for office as independents and, inevitably, we will come across each other’s radar.

In May, we endorsed our first candidate of the 2018 cycle: Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes who is running for Governor as an independent.

Such was the case for first two candidates this cycle the Centrist Project has endorsed: Bill Walker, the incumbent independent Governor of Alaska running for re-election, and Terry Hayes, Maine’s first independent State Treasurer now running for Governor.

The challenge of candidate recruitment cannot be understated, as running for office is an enormous decision for an individual to make that must align with their unique life circumstance.

One of the most amazing experiences of the last year, personally, has been sharing a room with many people wrestling with the same decision of whether to run and witnessing the catalytic effect of their realizing the transformative impact they could have if they ran together.

In August, we convened 30 key potential candidates, campaign operatives, funders, and thought leaders in Philadelphia, PA to discuss 2018 campaigns.

This was especially the case at an “Independent Pioneer Summit” we convened in Philadelphia in August, about which Joel eloquently observed: “The hope and determination in the room was kinetic.”

Now, we end the year preparing to announce a slate of at least four state legislative candidates in Colorado in January, roll out at least four more endorsements for U.S. Senate & Governor by March, and make down-ballot endorsements for candidates across the country throughout 2018.

It Begins in the States

The Centrist Project made an important, strategic decision to expand our work in state legislatures beginning this election cycle — recognizing the reality of lower barriers to entry, the opportunity to prove the “Fulcrum Strategy” concept in more than two dozen narrowly divided state legislative chambers, and the necessity to build the bench of future statewide candidates over the long-term.

Partnerships

In March, at a “Centrist Summit” that soft-launched the next phase of our organization’s activities, we brought together independent organizers and leaders from states including Alaska, Maine, Colorado, and Oregon.

In March, we convened 50 supporters and allies in Chicago to discuss our overarching 2018 strategy.

We were impressed by the quality of work already being done by existing organizations on the ground and announced our first official partnership in May with Maine Independents. With some seed funding from the Centrist Project, Maine Independents has been able to recruit potential candidates and organize candidate trainings.

In November, Chris Vance & Brian Baird launched Washington Independents.

By November, we launched our second partnership with Washington Independents, co-chaired by former seven-term Democratic Congressman Brian Baird and former state GOP Chairman Chris Vance.

Vance, who was the 2016 GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate in Washington, told the media: “It is time to give voters an alternative — a movement based on problem solving and common sense, not extreme ideologies.

Colorado

Throughout the year, most of our state efforts were focused in Colorado — the state we chose as our top target for 2018 based on a range of political and electoral dynamics.

As the Colorado Independent’s Corey Hutchin’s reported:

“With Republicans holding a one-seat majority in the Colorado Senate, and Democrats holding the House by 9, The Centrist Project sees fertile ground here for disruption. If just a handful of unaffiliated candidates gain seats in the legislature, the balance of power could shift to them.”
In June, the Centrist Project was featured on Colorado’s top Sunday political TV program upon our launch.

We launched a Steering Committee of business and civic leaders in the state. Many were recruited cold, as we built our organization from scratch. That includes, for example, Joshua Hunt — the founder & CEO of TRELOA, a Denver-based tech company that seeks to remove the middleman in real estate transactions to benefit end consumers. Joshua told me he rarely responds to a cold email, but the similarly disruptive approach of the Centrist Project caught his eye and he wanted to be involved.

Finding talent was another core objective. One of the most significant obstacles our movement faces is being able to attract and hire experienced political staff, as virtually all operatives — from campaign managers to field organizers — work exclusively for one party or the other.

Fortunately, our disgust with politics as usual was shared by some of the top talent of both parties in the state and we were thrilled to welcome aboard two key staffers who lead our Colorado team today: Andrew Short, the former Executive Director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Fund in Colorado, and Kelsie Hower Sandberg, a GOP fundraising consultant who has led the fundraising efforts for candidates at every level across Colorado.

Over the course of six months, our candidate recruitment program identified and reached out to more than 2,000 community leaders in 10 target districts across the state, from school board members to business executives.

After briefing and vetting over 75 potential candidates, we welcomed a dozen leaders to an intensive six week training program. For the first time, individuals interested in running for office as independents had resources available to them that rivaled and even surpassed both political parties.

Today, four of those leaders are preparing to launch their campaigns in January.

In December, we hosted a weekend retreat for our core group of potential candidates in Colorado.

So, can it work? We don’t just think so; we know so.

In the fall, we tested multiple arms of our campaign apparatus to support two independent candidates in municipal elections in Colorado. We were successful in helping to re-elect Sam Nizam to the Thornton City Council in a three-way race.

In a statement, he said:

“Thanks in large part to the infrastructure and resources the Centrist Project provided, I can continue to serve my constituents free from the constraints of partisan politics.”

Voters are ready. Through the new Centrist Project Institute, we published a groundbreaking report in September that found 85% of Colorado voters said they would be open to voting for an independent state legislative candidate, including vast majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.

In September, the Centrist Project Institute released a report on how Colorado voters view independent candidates and about independent voters themselves.

We also found that independents’ greatest appeal to voters is that they can “represent all the people, not just those from their party.”

A Growing Network

In order to attract and effectively support our candidates, the Centrist Project is working to organize a robust network of supporters, volunteers, and donors across the country.

In 2017, our grassroots base increased ten-fold to nearly 25,000 subscribed supporters, with a similar increase across social media. Our most-shared Facebook post, reaching close to 2 million people, went right to the core of our mission: government should serve the common good, not private interests.

As we spread the word online, our founder & co-chair Charles Wheelan started a new “Finding Common Ground” blog and Facebook Live series that covered topics ranging from health care to taxes.

Our growth has also been fueled by spikes of media attention around key milestones, followed by sustained engagement from our supporters who spread the word to others.

Some our top press clips this year included:

  • Roll Call: Centrist Project Charts Path for Electing Independents
    While obstacles may be abundant, Troiano pointed to his fellow panelists as an indication that the current political environment may be fertile ground for independent candidates.”
  • RealClearPolitics: Rise of the independents?
    In this scenario, neither Mitch McConnell nor Chuck Schumer will hold the gavel. The Senate leader would almost certainly be an independent or an independent-minded senator who relishes bipartisan cooperation.”
  • YAHOO! News: Fed up with the 2 parties, a group of centrists rises up
    “The group has a goal: Elect a small band of independents in the U.S. Senate to force compromise between Republicans and Democrats.”
  • POLITICO: Independents Are Starting to Organize
    With a historically unpopular Republican president in the White House and a Democratic Party in epic disarray, they think this is their moment.”
In September, Nick was a featured guest on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal program.

In January, we launched a small dollar subscription program and invited supporters to become Founding Members with a monthly contribution of whatever they could pitch in.

In return, we’d send them a book, an invitation to our online community, and access to monthly calls with guest speakers –– who have ranged from bestselling author Jonathan Haidt to Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget president Maya MacGuineas.

Our goal was to end the year with our first 500 members, and we just surpassed 700. Long-term, our vision is that our members will help drive candidate nominations and provide a sustainable source of small-dollar operational revenue.

In July, Independent State Representative Owen Casas (I-ME) joined our “Independents Day” event.

At the same time, we’ve been steadily cultivating a network of incumbent independents from coast to coast who have already been elected and are already bridging the partisan divide.

In July, our “Independents Day” event at the National Press Club featured elected independent officials from Maine to Alaska, including Governor Bill Walker (I-AK).

In July, we organized an “Independents Day” event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC to shine a spotlight on several incumbent independent leaders –– including Alaska Governor Bill Walker, State Senator David Johnson (I –IA), State Rep. Jason Grenn (I –AK), and State Rep. Owen Casas (I–ME).

As Reps. Casas and Grenn wrote in an op-ed for The Hill newspaper:

“For us, the more challenging independent path was worth it because it gave us the freedom to lead. We’ve learned that our constituents care more about having elected leaders that work together to get things done than having leaders who may share their party affiliation but contribute to political gridlock and dysfunction.

These independents are the real deal, and they described how they are able to bridge the divide between both parties in order to forge common ground solutions. (You can watch their full remarks on our website.)

“I didn’t need a party affiliation to learn the issues and form an opinion,” Maine state Representative Owen Casas told the packed room of media. He described the role he played in advancing a major piece of legislation in Augusta simply by engaging in constructive dialogue with both sides. “It took one person to walk around and talk to people.”

Our Grassroots

Volunteers worked throughout 2017 to help spread the word about the Centrist Project, advocate for political reforms, and lead by example through civil policy dialogues.

We began organizing chapters in January and, since then, have helped over two dozen local groups launch –– from Boston to Houston to Seattle.

Over 1,000 volunteers now stand ready to support Centrist Project candidates, wherever they may be in the country –– making phone calls, raising money, or showing up to knock doors.

In August, the Centrist Project Tulsa Chapter held a fundraiser for Maine Gubernatorial candidate Terry Hayes.

Our Movement

At the same time, we have been committed to growing and adding capacity to the political reform movement as a whole –– recognizing there is no single silver bullet to fixing politics.

In a groundbreaking Harvard Business School report published this fall, Centrist Project Board Member Katherine Gehl and Founders Circle member Michael Porter described in detail the root causes of political dysfunction and the landscape of potential reforms to address them. It provides a useful roadmap for the entire reform community.

In 2017, the Centrist Project became a founding board member of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers, which seeks to increase collaboration across many reform groups and build shared resources.

In addition, with generous support from the Bridge Alliance, we led a “Unrig the System” pilot project in Colorado alongside several other political reform organizations including Independent Voter Project and Represent.us to build a shared network of supporters, volunteers, and donors.

In August, the Centrist Project co-organized an “Unrig the System” event in Denver with 10 other political reform organizations and 100+ activists.

Our Organizational Backbone

Strategy. Team. Resources. Our ability to execute against our mission boils down to those three fundamentals, and we made significant progress in honing our plans, recruiting talent, and raising funds throughout 2017.

We’ve grown our team from remote one full-time employee to a staff of seven with a headquarters in Denver, Colorado.

We’ve added new organizational entities to the ecosystem of our movement, allowing us to maximize resources and the effectiveness in how we can deploy them. This includes:

  • The Centrist Project Institute — a new educational and research arm of our movement, formed through a merger with the pre-existing and mission-aligned 501(c)(3) the Common Sense Coalition.
  • Polestar — a social enterprise that provides campaign services directly to independent campaigns, including access to sophisticated voter data.
  • Centrist Project Election Fund — a Super PAC that will raise and spend funds to support our endorsed candidates. We crowdfunded the first $10,000 of this PAC from small donors as part of a candidate draft campaign.

Across these organizations, we raised more than $3 million in 2017 — a more than ten-fold increase over prior operating budgets that will allow us to scale our operations and invest in the long-term infrastructure of our movement.

More than $100k has been raised from small donors alone (mostly from our Founding Members), and we’ve taken pride in voluntarily disclosing all contributions over $5k on our website to ensure we remain a transparent organization.

We recruited new leaders to join the governance of our organizations, such as Marc Merrill who is the co-founder & co-CEO of Riot Games (creator of League of Legends) and has been a pioneer in the gaming industry. As Marc recently explained in an interview with Maria Shriver:

We want to create a vehicle to help people get elected who are not coupled to the historical infrastructure that prevents politicians from focusing on addressing the problems we face.”
The Board of Directors of the Centrist Project, Inc. 501(c)(4) non-profit organization.

And we expanded our leadership and advisors to include extraordinary individuals like ABC News’ Political Analyst Matthew Dowd, Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter, and Boston Properties’ CEO Owen Thomas.

The Road Ahead

Over the last year, a strong foundation for the 2018 election cycle has been laid: a slate of credible candidates, a growing network of supporters, a more robust (and unprecedented) electoral support system.

In the first few months of the new year, here’s what you can expect:

  • A new brand and identity that will take the Centrist Project into its next phase of evolution and growth;
  • Additional candidate announcements and endorsements, beginning in our target state of Colorado and followed by statewide races nationally;
  • A fully operational digital support & voter data system via Polestar that will provide independent candidates with the tools and tech they need;
  • A more robust platform and program for Founding Members to connect to each other and the movement;
  • Expanded opportunities for grassroots supporters and volunteers to support our candidates, no matter where they are from;
  • New research from the Centrist Project Institute illuminating how independent leaders have been and can be effective once in office;

And so much more.

Electing our first few candidates to office will be very difficult, but in so doing we will change perceptions of what is possible in politics today and lower the barrier for those who will follow.

Make no mistake, the journey we are on is not about a single election or election cycle. We are in this for the long-term and know it will take significant time and many iterations to get right.

To that end, we will continue to invest in the underlying infrastructure of our movement to level the playing field with both parties and build an ever-stronger vehicle for extraordinary leaders to run for office as independents.

By introducing new competition into our political system and moving beyond zero sum politics, we will have a transformative impact in the years and decades to come –– restoring a government that can truly represent the people and that has the ability to solve the big challenges we confront.

Our fellow citizens continue to look at the political landscape in despair. Thank you for being part of the solution, and for bringing others along to the cause. Together, we will take a large leap forward in 2018.