TALLAHASSEE — At a major tea party convention in St. Augustine last month, U.S. Senate candidate Bernie DeCastro wanted to address the thousands of political activists who showed up to decry a free-spending federal government.
But he says organizers told him there were only so many speaking slots and bigger names drew bigger crowds.
DeCastro is about as tea party as you can get. He would limit congressional terms, abolish the IRS and allow state legislatures to elect senators. He says our schools have been infiltrated with Marxist and socialist philosophies. But he couldn't speak at the rally featuring several major Republican candidates.
Such is life for minor party or independent candidates for statewide office. Pushed aside and derided as "also-rans," there are 17 names on the November ballot that most voters likely haven't heard of.
"I realize it's a modern day David and Goliath story," said DeCastro, who in 2008 lost a bid for state representative in a liberal district outside his hometown of Ocala. "It's like climbing Mount Everest when your opponents have somewhere around $10 million each."
Consider Peter Allen. The politically active Riverview electrician made two failed bids for the Hillsborough County Commission in the '90s and also led a south county secession movement that would have created a 68th county of about 70,000 residents. But Allen isn't deterred.
He's taking his message straight to the top with a gubernatorial campaign on the Independence Party of Florida ticket.
"The state of Florida needs a governor that will listen to the people," he said. "We're getting party representation instead of people representation."
Allen and some friends formed the Independence Party in 1999 and now boast that it's the fourth-largest party in the state.
He said he has a centrist perspective — he would have signed the teacher tenure bill from this spring but also criticized the Legislature for its aborted special session on oil drilling. He's for open primaries, term limits and a "health care bill of rights."
Some candidates have resorted to guerrilla tactics to attract attention. Libertarian Senate candidate Alexander Snitker crashed a June candidate forum in Sarasota after only major candidates were allowed to speak.
An office supply salesman and former Marine, Snitker told reporters: "You are stopping the freedom of speech from a person that served eight years to defend your right to do it."
Decrying a "virtual media blackout," Snitker started a weekly radio show that runs on a Clearwater AM station.
Candidate Michael E. Arth will protest gubernatorial debates this month by hosting mock debates — with cardboard cutouts of the major candidates — outside the hall in a parking lot.
The long shots aren't limited to the top ballot spots, either. After several failed bids for local office in Fort Lauderdale, Jim Lewis is running for attorney general. He couldn't get traction in the GOP primary, so, like Gov. Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race, he's a no-party candidate.
A former prosecutor, he would legalize marijuana.
"We should just treat this like we do alcohol and cigarettes," he said. "I'm not advocating its use, but people are doing it. Let's all move on here and take care of the serious crime."
In 2006, when the same five statewide offices were up for election, there were seven independent candidates on the ballot. This year, that figure has more than doubled.
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said the jump is likely because no incumbents are running in any statewide races, creating openings.
Beattie warned not to completely dismiss the unaligned candidates. Even if they take only 1 or 2 percent of the vote, they could determine the outcome of a close race: "There's a group of people who are voting that are upset with both parties."
In the August primary, for example, a relatively unknown socialist won nearly a quarter of the vote in the Democratic primary for governor, and a retired Army colonel from Plant City took 10 percent in the hard-fought Republican contest.
The independents aren't without a few colorful campaign planks. Senate candidate Bruce Ray Riggs of Crystal River is offering $14,248 to anyone who can prove that the 14th Amendment was properly ratified. Rick Tyler of Pensacola, who rails against corrupt public schools, dangerous vaccinations and propaganda mill media outlets, urges voters to "do something radical" and vote for him.
Daniel Imperato, a gubernatorial hopeful from West Palm Beach, cold-called a reporter to discuss his plans for the world's first nuclear fusion power plant. "I'm a very colorful guy," he said. "I ran for president. … I'm a very qualified individual."
Arth, best known for revitalizing a DeLand neighborhood known as Cracktown, is more of a policy wonk. He says the biggest issue is election reform, and wants instant runoff voting.
He also advocates a "new pedestrianism" in urban design, and is also concerned about the country's debt-to-gross domestic product ratio and the "insane policy" better known as the war on drugs. But he says money-centric politics prompted him to run for governor.
"It's sort of like coming upon a car wreck and seeing an injured citizen," he said of politics. "The average person would have an ethical obligation to render aid."