THIRD-PARTY GAINS:

Third-party and independent candidates found no room to breathe in this presidential year. Locked out of debates and neglected by major media, independent

Ralph Nader

, Libertarian

Bob Barr

, Green

Cynthia McKinney

and their compatriots tallied roughly 1.5 million votes combined–barely half Nader’s total on the Green line in 2000. But down-ballot races showed some cracks in the duopoly.

The

Vermont Progressive Party

won its first State Senate seat and five State House seats. New York’s

Working Families Party

, capitalizing on laws permitting fusion of major- and minor-party vote totals for co-endorsed candidates, provided the victory margin for Democrat

Eric Massa

‘s Congressional win and helped Democrats grab control of the State Senate. In Connecticut, a Hartford WFP candidate was the first third-party contender in history to be elected as a city registrar of voters.

The Greens won an Arkansas State House seat and took advantage of the Republican abandonment of Congressional races to win 200,000 votes (21 percent) for US Senate candidate

Rebekah Kennedy

. New Mexico Green

Rick Lass

, who sought one of five seats on the state’s Public Regulation Commission by running on a clean-energy, green-jobs platform, won 44 percent of the vote in a contest with a Democrat. San Francisco Green

Ross Mirkarimi

was re-elected to the board of supervisors, setting the electorally savvy lefty up for a possible mayoral run. Also in San Francisco, independent progressive

Cindy Sheehan

easily beat the Republican to finish second behind House Speaker

Nancy Pelosi

. Vermont independent gubernatorial candidate

Anthony Pollina

, with support from the Progressive Party, major unions and daily newspapers, placed ahead of the Democrat to finish second in the race for the Green Mountain State’s top job.    JOHN NICHOLS

WAL-MART TIME:

When the Labor Department released its latest jobs report on November 7, the news was even grimmer than expected. The unemployment rate jumped twice as fast as economists were projecting between September and October, reaching 6.5 percent, the highest level in fourteen years. A day earlier, the department announced that more than 3.8 million Americans are receiving unemployment benefits, the most since the recession of the early 1980s. Real weekly earnings fell again in October, on the heels of the first quarterly decline in consumer spending in seventeen years. Major retailers followed the bleak employment figures with reports of double-digit sales declines. Most are anticipating a decidedly unfestive holiday shopping season.

Most, but not all. While the economic crisis has its rivals reeling,

Wal-Mart

posted increased sales in October and is forecasting more of the same in the coming months. As jobs vanish and paychecks shrink, Wal-Mart’s rock-bottom prices–the end product of a business model reliant on cheap overseas production, super-low wages and aggressive unionbusting–are becoming the only recourse in what’s shaping up to be a recessionary Christmas. At a recent investors meeting, Wal-Mart CEO

H. Lee Scott Jr.

sounded positively Grinch-like when he linked the country’s economic desperation and the company’s good fortune. “In my mind, there is no doubt that this is Wal-Mart time,” Scott said. “This is the kind of environment that Sam Walton built this company for.”   MAX FRASER

MINNESOTA, THE NEW FLORIDA:

Lawyers asking judges to block the counting of absentee ballots. Unfounded charges about the supposed partisanship of local election officials. An attempt to claim a victory before all the votes are counted in order to create a false sense of inevitability. Sound familiar? No, this isn’t Florida 2000. It’s Minnesota 2008, but the too-close-to-call finish of the Senate race between Republican incumbent

Norm Coleman

and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party challenger

Al Franken

is shaping up as another high-stakes recount fight. Indeed, Coleman’s crew could make Karl Rove blush.

With an initial advantage of about 700 votes out of almost 3 million cast, and with absentee and disputed ballots still to be reviewed, the Republican demanded that Franken concede in order to save taxpayers the cost of a recount. When that didn’t work, Coleman sent lawyers into court on a Saturday–without notifying Franken’s camp–to try to prevent the counting of absentee ballots from heavily Democratic Hennepin County (Minneapolis). At the same time, Coleman’s campaign manager claimed that the result of commonplace corrections of vote totals by county election officials, which narrowed the Republican’s margin to barely 200 votes, were “highly suspicious” and “statistically impossible.” Minnesota Secretary of State

Mark Ritchie

, one of the nation’s leading electoral-integrity advocates, scolded Coleman’s camp for “denigrating the election process” and trying “to create a cloud” over a recount that is likely to last into mid-December.

Ritchie, a DFLer who has maintained a rigorously nonpartisan office and is determined to get a clean count, will have his hands full dealing with the win-at-any-cost Coleman team.    JOHN NICHOLS

DEAN’S NEXT MOVE:

When

Howard Dean

became chair of the Democratic National Committee,

Karl Rove

was yapping about how America was permanently realigning as a Republican-red nation. Four years later, Democrats control the presidency, Congress and most statehouses. Dr. Dean’s cure for what ailed his party–a fifty-state strategy that Washington insiders

James Carville

and

Rahm Emanuel

once griped about–built the foundation for

Barack Obama

‘s breakthrough victories in states like North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado. Dean transformed the Democratic Party more thoroughly than any DNC chair since

Paul Butler

, who in the 1950s steered the party away from the solid South and toward then-Republican states in New England and the upper Midwest. So why’s Dean stepping down? He knows DNC chairs don’t make strategy under Democratic presidents; they take orders from the White House. But Dean leaves–hopefully for the corner office at the Department of Health and Human Services–as something few expected: the man who proved Rove wrong.