This summer, most people assumed that Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) would easily win reelection. He was facing two candidates who were splitting the votes of those looking for someone new to run the state, which is often the best setup a less-than-popular incumbent can hope for (see: Maine gubernatorial race). But then, the two opponents decided to join forces and form the Alaska First Unity ticket. Bill Walker, a former mayor and former Republican, ran as an independent gubernatorial candidate, and Democrat Byron Mallott joined him as the lieutenant governor candidate.
And now the two candidates are preparing to take office, and no one is quite sure what kind of an administration a conservative Republican and a Democrat will run -- especially one endorsed by former governor Sarah Palin.
(Other fun fact, courtesy of the University of Minnesota: "The losses by Mark Begich and Sean Parnell in Alaska mark just the fifth time over the last 50 years in which a state's sitting governor and U.S. Senator from different political parties were defeated in the same cycle.")
The idea of politicians from different ends of the ideological spectrum joining hands and singing bipartisan carols while all the country's problems disappear is one of America's favorite and most enduring fairy tales.
But, every once in a while, a unity ticket really does run for office, although the definition often stretches and include many types of idealistic electoral scenarios. Sometimes they even win, although most of the time their magic is too fragile to exist outside of the safe, nurturing environment of op-eds.
In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry briefly fantasized about offering the vice-presidential nomination to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) also popped up as an option. All interested parties decided that would be a bad idea, although a Kerry-McCain ticket did well in the polls. (Four years later, Hagel again joked about joining a unity ticket, with Barack Obama, and six more years later, he's working in the Democratic president's administration.)
It did not happen.
On the national level, groups trying to build unity tickets from scratch outnumber the candidates who find it a good idea.
In 2012, a group called Americans Elect tried to run a "unity ticket" of nice centrists to run for president. As The Washington Post described the endeavor at the time,
By empowering Web-izens, the group would skip early-state hucksterism and favor-seeking donors. Using viral marketing savvy, the organizers would advance a third-party “unity” ticket without the usual cynicism, circus acts and, it turns out, scrutiny. They aimed, in short, to take the politics out of politics.
Thomas Friedman wrote a column about Americans Elect in July 2011.
Write it down: Americans Elect. What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life — remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out.
It did not work.
Another group called Unity08 tried a similar thing four years earlier.
Unity08 took another step yesterday toward its 2008 goal of running a presidential ticket consisting of one Republican and one Democrat.
The group, which was formed last spring, released a set of draft rules that would govern the recruitment of candidates and the June 2008 online nominating convention that would produce a ticket.
"We're creating a new party. We're devising a new way of thinking about issues," said Doug Bailey, a Unity08 co-founder and founder of the Hotline political tipsheet. "We're talking about a national online convention that's never been held before. We're talking about putting together a national unity ticket."
It did not work.
Far more frequently the "unity" referenced is only intended to repair a fractious party, not an entire ideological system. What better way to maximize your vote count then by taking a presidential candidate from one end of the party, and a vice-presidential candidate from another end? Or, if that seems too much, avoiding primaries and saving money for the general election is always useful. This doesn't always happen, and when it does it doesn't always work out as planned (see North+South ticket run by the Republican Party in 1864). Ego also had something to do with it; it takes a lot of effort to shut down your own campaign to become a second-stringer on someone else's. Good on Mallott for cutting a deal, because without it, he wouldn't even be Lt. Gov. Mallott or Gov. Mallott.
There just might have been a reason that politicians decided not giving the vice presidency to the election loser, a la Jefferson and Adams, was a good idea.
However, absence of unity tickets only made our collective political hearts grow fonder of the idea.
For those who have lost hope in winning unity tickets in blockbuster races, there are smaller bipartisan stocking stuffers that will never go away.
Mainly, "Team of Rivals" syndrome, where a election winner is asked to fill their offices with former opponents, just like in the "West Wing," the Abraham Lincoln administration, and the Obama administration fanfic.
Walker and Mallott did something that rarely succeeds, will be interesting to watch, and surely propel a million more attempts to nationalize a unity ticket in 2016, despite the fact that the Democratic and Republican Party are still mighty strong -- even as they can't conjure up a unity ticket from within their ranks.
This post has been updated.