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Their guy for governor got beat by 16 points in Tuesday’s elections, but the Working Families Party came away trumpeting victory. It retained its ballot line, and party leaders are now hopeful their newly heightened status will translate into political victories.

By pulling in about 85,000 votes in an election with low voter turnout and few competitive races, Working Families rose above New York’s other third parties, including the Liberals and Libertarians, which fell short of the 50,000 votes needed to keep their spots on the ballot. That’s because Working Families’ message of advocating programs that benefit low-wage workers is clear to voters, says political analyst Henry Sheinkopf: “It proves the point that if you have no ideology ultimately you will fail, which is the overall lesson to Democrats in this election.”

Working Families now faces the task of defining its role. Will its main focus be nudging the Democratic Party leftward, or will it use its new position as the only left-of-center party remaining [see “It Ain’t Over…Yet” in this issue of the Weekly] to more frequently run its own candidates in local elections? “There’s now only one progressive party to vote for in the state, and that’s us,” said Dan Cantor, the party’s executive director. “The question on the table is: Can we turn this newfound standing into policy gains?”

The four-year-old party has risen quickly, but its actual electoral success statewide has been minimal so far. Consider the last two gubernatorial elections: Governor George Pataki crushed both of the candidates Working Families backed: Peter Vallone and Carl McCall, neither of whom got more than 33 percent of the vote in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans five to three.

“The question is whether they can be less the tail wagged by the dog, and use their leverage to keep the Democrats from picking these horrible candidates,” said Micah Sifry, a journalist and advocate who writes extensively about third parties.

This issue of what Working Families will do in upcoming elections won’t be easy. As public radio pundit and SUNY Albany communications professor Alan Chartock noted, third parties have always struggled with the choice between core values and bending to support centrist candidates. “Do you remain pure or do you become despoiled in order to win?” Chartock asked. “Compromise is the name of the game in politics, but that tends to make whores out of a lot of politicians.”

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