In a major escalation of the struggle between John Kerry supporters and independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Arizona Democrats filed a lawsuit Wednesday aimed at blocking Nader from running in that state.
Arizona Democrats charged that 72 percent of the signatures Nader submitted on his petitions to get on the ballot are invalid, mostly because many of the names do not appear to be those of registered voters in Arizona.
If the allegations prove to be correct, Nader would be more than 8,000 signatures short of the number he needs to get on the Arizona ballot.
Nader won 45,645 votes, or about 3 percent, in Arizona in the 2000 election, as George W. Bush carried the state with 51 percent.
"We are quite confident that Mr. Nader will not make the Arizona ballot," Arizona Democratic Chairman Jim Pederson told reporters Wednesday afternoon in a conference call.
The Nader campaign did not return a call from MSNBC.com seeking its comment on the suit.
'Not speaking' for Kerry
Pederson said, "we are not speaking for the Kerry campaign, we are not speaking for the Democratic National Committee. This is strictly an effort by Arizonans to make sure that our presidential election in Arizona is legitimate and it's legal."
Pederson said he had told some Kerry campaign officials that "we were filing the lawsuit.... They said, 'You're on your own.'"
He said no Arizona Democratic Party funds were being used to mount the legal challenge and that the lawyers involved were donating their services.
Every dollar the Nader campaign must spend fighting off Democratic legal challenges is a dollar it won't be able to spend on Nader's travel or on radio and TV ads. So, whether legally successful or not, the Democrats' effort will sap Nader's strength.
One of the lawyers handling the suit, Andy Gordon, said that of those names on Nader petitions in Arizona that could be identified as registered voters, 46 percent were Republicans, 28 percent Democrats and 26 percent Greens or independents.
"This is clearly an effort by the Republicans to screw up the Kerry campaign," Gordon said.
Gordon also charged that some of the signature gatherers used by the Nader campaign in Arizona were convicted felons and therefore not eligible to collect signatures.
Pederson said he had not conferred with his fellow Democratic state chairmen to coordinate a legal strategy to frustrate Nader's efforts to get on ballots in all 50 states.
But the Arizona suit might serve as a template for legal action elsewhere.
Meanwhile Nader's candidacy will be hotly debated at at this weekend's Green Party national convention in Milwaukee, an event that may be as important to the outcome of the November election as either the Democratic or Republican conventions later this summer.
Unlike the major party conventions, which are mostly pro forma exercises, there's still uncertainty heading into the Green convention: Will the Greens nominate Nader as their candidate, nominate current Green Party front-runner David Cobb, endorse Nader, or choose to back no one at all?
Prize at stake: 22 states
If Nader gets the Green nomination, he’d likely be on the ballot in 22 states, including eight truly contested ones that could swing to either President Bush or presumptive Democratic nominee Kerry: Colorado, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Even if the Green Party only endorsed Nader instead of nominating him, it would leave the door open to individual Green Party state organizations to nominate Nader themselves, putting him on the ballot in those states, according to voting expert Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a monthly newsletter that analyzes developments in state election laws.
Whether done nationally or at the state level, decisions by Greens to give Nader their party’s ballot lines would save him time and effort, allowing him to focus his efforts on other states, such as Missouri, where the Green Party does not have a ballot line.
The presence of Nader’s candidacy in what are likely to be toss-up states such as Wisconsin could make Kerry’s job immeasurably more difficult in the fall campaign.
Estimating Nader's effect
While no one can prove that Nader voters this year would vote for Kerry if Nader isn’t on the ballot in their particular state, Nader would complicate Kerry’s travel plans and advertising budget by forcing him to spend time and money in places where he otherwise wouldn’t need to.
Chris Kofinis, strategist for TheNaderFactor.com, a Democratic group that is working to appeal to potential Nader voters, said, “This is an important bloc of voters. Democrats recognize this. Democrats and progressives are clearly determined to reach out to potential Nader supporters. We know that united together we can finally end the destructive policies of the Bush White House. That’s the power of our message, and we believe it will work."
But as Wednesday's lawsuit proved, some Democrats are taking an entirely different tack, not reaching out to Nader supporters but resorting to legal warfare to keep Nader off the ballot. This might well backfire, said Micah Sifry, author of the book "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America."
“The name of the party is the Democratic Party, not the Anti-Democratic Party,” Sifry said.
A Democratic legal crusade to obstruct Nader’s efforts to get on the ballot “feeds the Greens’ argument that this system is a duopoly” run by the two major parties in their self-interest, Sifry added.
“The Democrats ought to make a positive case for why people should be voting for them, not using strong-arm tactics,” he said. Sifry sees Democratic blocking of Nader as “part of an ongoing self-destructive dynamic between the Greens and the Democrats.”
At his press conference Monday at which he introduced California Green Party activist Peter Camejo as his running mate, Nader complained of “intimidation by liberals” who are trying to prevent voters from having the chance to support him.
“Too many of these very active liberal Democrats who call themselves progressives are really disgracing themselves," he said. "When they meet the moment of truth as to whether they are going to stand for the right of candidates to speak … they turn authoritarian and exclusionary.”
Camejo on his ticket may give Nader a stronger appeal to both leftist Greens and to Latinos in New Mexico, Arizona and other states as well since Camejo is fluent in Spanish.
"By selecting Camejo, Nader seems determined to be a decisive factor in this election,” said Kofinis. “The potential tragedy from Nader's candidacy is that he is placing at risk the very progressive causes he has fought for and the very progressive causes that the Bush White House has sought to destroy over the last four years."
Kofinis and his colleagues sent Nader an open letter Tuesday posing some difficult questions, including this one: "You suggested that Democrats would be better off working to win back the 8 million conservative Democrats who supported George W. Bush in 2000. How can this realistically be done with without pushing the party further to the right and jeopardizing the very progressive agenda you are fighting for?"
Cobb seeks Green nomination
Meanwhile, from Milwaukee Tuesday, where he continued rounding up support, Green contender Cobb told MSNBC.com that he has a plurality but not yet a majority of the approximately 800 delegates to the convention.
Cobb said his primary goal is building the strength of the party by increasing party voter registration and boosting local Green candidates. His message to progressive voters, he added, is “vote your conscience” and, if in some states, their conscience tells Greens they must vote for Kerry in order to forestall four more years of Bush policies, “I understand that.”
Cobb said that while he has “immense respect” for Nader, “I don’t understand how a Nader independent candidacy can help build the future of the Green Party.”
Sifry is anticipating a struggle this weekend in Milwaukee: “I suspect the Green Party is headed for a split or an implosion.”