A Reform Candidate Was Just Elected Mayor of Syracuse: in the age of Trump is there a need for his old party?

By: Alex Kack

In the media blitz surrounding Donald Trump's 2016 campaign there was one period of his past that was rarely if ever discussed, his first campaign for the White House.

In late 1999, Trump formed an exploratory committee to seek the nomination of the center right Reform Party, of which he had recently become a member.

The Reform Party was riding a bit of a high moment at the time, having just come off of it's founder, Ross Perot's two '92 and '96 presidential bids, it's first gubernatorial win in the election of Minnesota's Jesse Ventura and a slew of local victories.

Trump at the time seemed like a natural, if not slightly crass, successor to the billionaire populist Perot. Both insanely wealthy business men with larger than life personalities and long histories of weighing in on politics.

Trump's 2000 campaign was a very different affair then the one that would propel him to the White House 16 years later. Then as now, he was still a trade warrior, decrying foreign nations “taking advantage” of the United States, and he spoke regularly of the need to repeal NAFTA. Absent however was the vague, unspecific policy chest thumping and race baiting that would serve as the heart of his '16 run.

Instead he spoke of moderate immigration policies, the need for single payer health care, and his economic plans which included raising taxes on the 1%.

His campaign however didn't make it far in either the public consciousness or the election season. By the end of '99 he found himself the unwitting poster child in a battle for the soul of the Party he had only recently joined.

Another former Republican had declared their candidacy for the Reform nomination, far right culture warrior Pat Buchanan. Having previously sought the Republican nomination in 1992 and 1996, Buchanan was preaching a much different vision of America than Perot, Trump or Ventura had been advocating, one that was primarily protestant and white.

Buchanan had been previously, and correctly, criticized for his abhorrent views on race, homosexuality and religion. Trump chose to make this the focus of his campaign against Buchanan. During the primary he accused Buchanan of “having a love affair with Adolf Hitler” accused him of hating black people and went as far as holding a press conference in the Holocaust exhibit of the Museum of Tolerance decrying Buchanan's statements on Nazism and race.

Party infighting began to reach a fever pitch around this time, as factions formed around the two candidates and out side of them, with some Perot loyalists saying they would support neither man and would possibly leave the party altogether.

A debate was scheduled between the two men, a debate which Trump's campaign said they were never notified of. When the day of the debate came to pass, Buchanan appeared alone.

By February of 2000 former Ku-Klux Klan leader David Duke had endorsed Buchanan and joined the party, members of the Reform leadership had publicly exited the party, as had Ventura and a number of the state party affiliates. A meeting of the remaining party power structure was convened in Nashville where a number of physical altercations between Reform members broke out. Amidst the chaos Trump announced his withdrawal from both the party and the race. His name appeared on two state ballots during the primaries, California and Michigan, both of which he won despite having dropped out.

Buchanan secured the nomination at a national convention marred by more fighting, protesting and a walk out. He went on to the general election and did poorly against Republican George W. Bush, Democrat Al Gore, and Green Ralph Nader. During the campaign a law suit was filed by other Reform members attempting to invalidate his nomination and after the election many of his supporters ultimately fled the Reform Party either to rejoin the Republicans or to join other smaller conservative groups. Perot himself refused to endorse Buchanan and left the party.

The damage was of course far to great to repair. Buchanan's abysmal performance lead to the party loosing ballot access in a number of states, their membership had dwindled and they were no longer eligible for matching funds. In 2004 they chose not to field a presidential candidate and instead to endorse Ralph Nader, a stark departure from their centrist roots and later right ward lurch.

The party continued to fall apart from there, they failed to win any substantial elections in the decade that followed and eventually lost ballot access through out most of the United States. In 2012 an attempt to re-legitimize the party formed around the presidential campaign of former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer however he failed to gain traction and eventually lost the Reform nomination to Andre Bennett, a little known businessman who had never held elected office.

Despite this long, drawn-out, fall from grace, the Reform Party never ceased to exist. They're now focused almost entirely on local elections often running candidates as joint agreements with other ideologically similar local parties. And it was this method that propelled one of their candidates into the Mayorship of one of New York's largest cities last Tuesday.

Ben Walsh became the first third party candidate to be elected Mayor of Syracuse since a member of Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party held the office in 1914. His candidacy rode a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats as well as independent and third party voters into victory at the ballot box. And while he will technically govern as an Independent, it counts as a major win for the down trodden Reform Party, and serves as a possible road map to rebuilding.

Much has been said of third parties since Donald Trump first secured the Republican nomination, with many having suggested that 'Trumpism' and the rise of the alt-right could lead to a fracturing of the Republican Party. During the campaign a large amount of attention was paid to Libertarian nominee, Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, however he ultimately failed to live up to his promise as a substantial factor in the general election.

The idea that a mass exodus from the Republican Party to the Libertarian seems unlikely given the latter's progressive opinions on social issues and dovish views on foreign policy. It would be difficult to imagine men like Mitt Romney, Jeff Flake or John Kasich fitting comfortably into a party that preaches LGBT equality and the legalization of recreational drug use. However a resurgent centrist group like the Reform Party could make for a much more logical and easy transition.

There are obvious problems of course, despite the passage of time the Reform Party infighting has never really stopped and with out the leadership of a legacy figure like Perot to calm tensions it could serve as an obvious roadblock to future success. Still they're not the only group currently vying for the 'radical middle'. Other groups like the Modern Whig Party exist with out the internal drama but also with out the electoral history to grant them legitimacy as well.

Could Trump's former party be his undoing? It seems unlikely, but given the Republican Party's continued fall into extremism and depravity it seems equally unlikely that the forces of traditional conservatism and moderation will have a place left in that organization.

Alex Kack is the editor and founder of the 'Bull Moose Review' as well as 'Spooky News'. He is a political advocate, writer and comedian currently based in Washington D.C. where he lives with his girlfriend and their excessive number of pets. Follow him on Twitter here: @Alex_Kack He's on Tumblr here: alexkack.tumblr.com