Naderites of Convenience

Conservatives for Nader? Who ever heard of such a thing? And here’s something many would consider equally unlikely: dirty tricks in Oregon.

It’s easy to make the case that Ralph Nader was responsible for electing George W. Bush in 2000. Bush’s winning margin in two states—Florida and New Hampshire—was much smaller than the Nader vote there. Democrats are worried that Nader will do it again.

“I think Ralph Nader’s candidacy is the single biggest danger to the Kerry candidacy,” says Howard Dean, a former rival of presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry. Dean is becoming Kerry’s ambassador to the Naderites. His mission is to drive home a point that should be obvious after 2000: A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.

Now that Nader has failed to get the Green Party’s endorsement, he has to try to get on state ballots through other means. So far, he has not succeeded in getting on the ballot anywhere as an independent. Last week, his supporters abandoned their effort in Arizona, where Democrats had filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of thousands of Nader’s petition signatures. Being endorsed by the remnants of the Reform Party, however, could get Nader on the ballot in as many as seven states, including the swing states of Colorado, Florida, and Michigan.

In Oregon, the Nader forces made their second try last month to get 1,000 registered voters to show up at a convention and sign petitions that would qualify the independent candidate for that state’s ballot. This time, Nader had some help from unlikely sources. One was the conservative Oregon Family Council, which encouraged its members to attend the event even though its director was quoted as saying, “Bush is our guy on virtually every issue.” The other was the staunchly conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, which called its local members and told them, according to a script on the organization’s Web site, “Liberals are trying to unite in Oregon and keep Nader off the ballot to help their chances of electing John Kerry. We could divide this base of support.”

Matt Kibbe, president of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said, “There are about 30,000 Oregon CSE members. We called about 1,000 folks in the Portland area and said this would be an opportunity to show up and provide clarity in the presidential debate.”

Clarity? “I think Ralph Nader certainly provides clarity, because he forces John Kerry to explain where he is on things,” Kibbe explained. “There is a problem with the Kerry campaign in that they keep flip-flopping, even disavowing their own voting record.”

Democrats cried foul. In a letter to Nader, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon complained, “Apparently, this is being done with, at a minimum, the quiet encouragement of Nader-for-President campaign staff. I am writing to bring this to your attention and to urge you to reject this potential fraud on the voters of my state.”

Fraud? “It is a moral fraud to suggest that you have enough support to get on the ballot in Oregon when in fact you are using people who support someone who is already on the ballot,” said Josh Kardon, Wyden’s chief of staff. Democrats claim that Republicans had a hand in the recruitment of phony Nader supporters. “Individuals were making phone calls from within Oregon Republican Party offices, urging Republican activists to go to the Nader convention,” Kardon said. “The Republican Party here didn’t deny it. Essentially, they said, ‘Well, it was volunteers.’ “

Citizens for a Sound Economy insists there was no coordination. “Not with Nader. Not with Bush,” Kibbe said.

Meanwhile, Nader complained about alleged dirty tricks by Oregon Democrats. An e-mail went out from a Democratic activist urging Democrats to show up at Nader’s convention but to refuse to sign his petitions. “They want to censor and stifle and sabotage the opportunity for tens of thousands of Oregon voters to vote for the candidate of their choice,” Nader charged. Democratic officials say the e-mail was sent by—who else?—a volunteer acting on his own who signed his name with a Democratic Party affiliation. The state party’s executive director called the e-mail “misguided and not condoned by the Democratic Party of Oregon.”

Now a group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission. The group argues that CSE’s efforts to get Nader’s name on the Oregon ballot amount to an illegal corporate campaign contribution. But CSE says it’s going to keep helping Nader. “We’re looking at Washington state, where Nader is trying to qualify for the ballot,” Kibbe said. “We’re looking at Wisconsin … all the swing states.”

Could Nader re-elect Bush? Eighteen state polls taken in May and June asked people how they would vote for president. In 15 states, Nader took more support from Kerry than from Bush. In three states, his impact was neutral. There was not a single polled state in which having Nader in the running helped Kerry.

In Wisconsin, which Al Gore carried in 2000 by less than one-quarter of 1 percent, Bush’s current lead is smaller than Nader’s level of support. And in two states, the latest polls show the race between Bush and Kerry dead even, with Nader getting 2 to 5 percent of the vote. Those states? Florida and New Hampshire.