There’s no cell phone service in the central Pennsylvania mountains where David Jolly is waiting out the pandemic with his young family. He spends most days walking the woods or adding another beam to the two-story pole barn he’s determined to build by hand.
“Good thinking time,” Jolly called it.
Lately, Jolly has a lot to think about. The former Florida congressman is itching to run for public office in 2022 — possibly for U.S. Senate, though governor isn’t out of the question. The state needs leaders willing to compromise, he said, who put people over partisanship.
But Jolly is a free agent. Two years ago, he divorced from the Republican Party in a public split over its fealty to President Donald Trump, and he has no interest in going back. He spent much of the last two years as a political analyst for MSNBC, where the anti-Trump musings of a disenchanted ex-Republican were in high demand on the liberal cable network. But his right-of-center politics aren’t a fit with many in today’s Democratic Party.
In America’s two-party system, Jolly would seem to be out of options. Unless he thinks voters are ready to throw out that system, and he — a 48-year-old from Pinellas County — can be the candidate to lead them there.
Are they? And is he?
“I wrestle with that on a daily basis,” Jolly said earlier this month from a landline in his mountain home. “I do think we could mount a viable campaign. But viable and winning look very different and require a lot of money.”
America, for the most part, has not been kind to third-party candidates. To diehard Democrats and Republicans, they are spoilers who siphon away votes. Non-partisans are reticent to back minor party candidates for fear of wasting their votes.
But the years leading up to and spanning Trump’s presidency saw mounting frustration with the lack of options at the ballot box. A 2004 Gallup survey found six in 10 people believed the two parties did an adequate job of representing American viewpoints; support for a third party hovered around 40 percent. By 2018, those numbers had flipped, with most Americans now saying a third party was needed.
In Florida, this dissatisfaction is evident in voter registration. The fastest-growing segment of new voters register with no party affiliation. They now make up 26 percent of the state’s 14.4 million voters.
A political analyst could look at that data and see a path to victory for an independent candidate. And Jolly “would love to be able to test it,” he said.
He cites the 2010 U.S. Senate race as further inspiration. That year, Republican Marco Rubio won a three-way race against Charlie Crist, who mounted an independent campaign after losing to Rubio in the GOP primary, and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Rubio won without majority support. Crist took nearly 30 percent of the vote, and Meeks pulled in 20 percent.
That was an open Senate race, though. Jolly in 2022 would have to run against an incumbent Rubio, who has built a national brand, or Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump-aligned Republican who is exceedingly popular among most Florida GOP voters. Democrats also expect to mount serious challenges for both jobs.
Florida has become ever more partisan in the last decade, making third-party candidates less attractive to voters, not more, said Lee Drutman, a political scientist from the University of California, Berkeley and author of Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop: The Case For Multiparty Democracy in America.
A recent Pew study found 90 percent of Trump and Joe Biden voters believed a victory by the other candidate would result in “lasting harm” to the United States. With those stakes, taking a chance on a third-party choice feels too great to risk, said Drutman. That reality is not going to change without election reform, he added.
In response to Trump, Scott Muller left the Republican Party and started the Serve America Movement, a political party intent on recruiting independent candidates. He had hoped hyper-partisanship would create more opportunities for middle-of-the-road candidates. Instead, many have gone the way of Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, who failed to gain traction in 2019 for his short-lived, independent bid for the White House.
The party so far has had more success in places where one party dominates, like Connecticut and New York, where 51 candidates won this cycle.
“Conventional wisdom suggests the more partisan the two parties and our politics, the wider the lane up the middle,” Muller said. “The truth is the opposite. The more extreme the politics, the narrower the lane up the middle.”
Jolly knows this because he was named executive chairman of the Serve America Movement in March. He believes in the party’s mission enough to consider a quixotic run for U.S. Senate or governor to help grow the movement.
“David Jolly may never be in office because the system is set up to block independent runs. But it’s an indictment of our system if an independent isn’t viable,” Jolly said. “Florida is exactly the forum where an independent candidate should be viable.”
The candidate who takes that risk may have an advantage in Florida, said Paula Dockery, a former state senator and one-time Republican who also left the party. The state is home to several former GOP consultants who viewed Trump as a unique threat to the country and worked to defeat him. They include Rick Wilson, who helped create The Lincoln Project, an organization made up of Never Trump Republicans who run ads against the president. The Lincoln Project also is trying to unseat Georgia’s two Republican senators in the runoff election next month.
“Someone has got to be the guinea pig,” Dockery said.
Jolly would be welcome to run under the banner of the Independent Party, said Ernie Bach, the party’s longtime chairman in Florida. The state has more than 160,000 registered Independents. Though lacking money, the party hopes to organize chapters in a handful of urban areas and attract unaffiliated voters.
“Seeing Jolly for the past year as one the pundits on MSNBC, our respect for him has grown tremendously,” Bach said. “The question has been asked is he someone we could support for office in the future. He’s on the list.”
Jolly has other considerations. After losing his race for Florida’s 13th Congressional District in 2016 to Crist (now a Democrat), Jolly has built a successful career in the private sector. Besides his TV gig, Jolly is vice president of Shumaker Advisors Florida, the government relations arm of the powerhouse law firm Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP.
His retreat to the woods also has afforded Jolly time to spend with his family, away from the studio cameras and paid speaking circuit. He and his wife, Laura, welcomed their first child in 2019 and like many, the public health scare has altered his priorities.
“COVID has taught me the importance of being with your kids,” Jolly said. “We’re only going to get in if it’s the right office, the right decision, the right timing.”