The Independent Path to the Blaine House
Eliot Cutler has had a career that’s taken him from his home state of Maine to Washington D.C. to Beijing and back again. He’s now seeking to use that experience to claim the Blaine House and become the third independent governor in Maine’s history.
Two other independents, James B. Longley in 1974 and Angus King in 1994, have successfully navigated the path that Cutler is hoping to follow.
Both King and Longley had similar, significant advantages that put them head and shoulders above other, unsuccessful independent candidates in Maine. Both men had relatively good name recognition, King from his time on Maine Public Television and Longley from his work heading the “Longley Commission” on government efficiency for Governor Curtis, a post he turned into a PR bonanza.
Both candidates had financial parity with their partisan competition, Longley because of a new law limiting campaign spending and his network of business supporters and King due to his own personal wealth.
Both also had a strong personal drive to seek the office and turned out to be good campaigners, despite their lack of previous political experience. Longley was particularly driven, barely slept, and was manically focused on retail campaigning, sometimes shaking the hands of mill workers twice in one day as they both began and ended their shifts.
King and Longley were also each running on a specific plan for the future of Maine, a useful tool for an independent without the ideological grounding of a political party. Longley had the recommendations of his commission report, which he said would save the state $24 million. King had his book, Making A Difference, that he used to define himself as a “compassionate pragmatist.”
Both Longley and King also had the advantage of running in years where, like 2010, the governor’s race is an open seat, with no incumbent in the race and primaries in both parties.
Eliot Cutler has some of the strengths that saw King and Longley reach the Blaine House, but in other areas the candidate and campaign aren't quite there yet.
Cutler says he's willing to spend enough of his own money to make sure he's competitive and has enlisted real estate developer Bobby Monks as his campaign treasurer to help raise even more. Monks has a wide range of business interests in Maine and recently led President Obama's fundraising in the state.
Cutler is already putting some of this money to work. He has begun hiring staff, including veteran campaign manager Ted O'Meara and has rented office space on Commercial Street in downtown Portland, where I recently sat down with him and O'Meara to discuss the campaign. (The offices were empty except for three chairs at the time, but they assured me that real furniture would be arriving soon.)
While he's unproven as a politician, having never run for elective office before, in our discussion Cutler seemed to have a good grasp of campaign basics and gave some hints of a very aggressive strategy.
“People need to know that I'm real, that I'm here through 2010, and that I'm competitive,” said Cutler. “I'm not running a quixotic campaign.”
Unlike several of the other 2010 candidates who have never run for office before, Cutler at least has some experience on the ground in a high-stakes political race. He did media relations and scheduling for Ed Muskie during his 1968 and '72 national campaigns.
According to a series of interviews Cutler gave to the Muskie Oral History Project at Bates (transcripts of which can be read in full here), he saw firsthand the personal commitment that it takes to win an election, something he says Muskie lacked in 1968.
“...he blamed all the ‘nameless, faceless bastards’ as he called them in the back room who, NFBs we used to say, who he didn't know and who he thought were just going to kill him by over-scheduling him and over-committing him to do things. Well, you can't run a successful campaign without putting in a lot more effort, frankly, than he was prepared to do,” explained Cutler in one recorded interview.
Cutler says that his choice to run as an independent was also influenced by his time working for Muskie, both on the campaigns and as a Senate aide, because Muskie always sought to reach across the aisle during his time in government. (An interesting observation about a man famous for having single-handedly resuscitated the Democratic Party in Maine).
Cutler himself was a registered Democrat for most of his life and worked for both Muskie and President Jimmy Carter. He changed his registration to the GOP to support Peter Mills in the 2006 Republican primary but switched back before the 2008 election to vote for Adam Cote in he Democratic Primary for Maine's first Congressional District. He is now unenrolled.
“I intend to be distinguished among the minds of Maine voters by the quality of ideas I put on the table,” Cutler assured me. However, he wasn't willing to reveal many specifics of his policy proposals, and said he didn't intend to release a policy road map or a campaign book like Longley or King.
On health care, which Cutler says should be a basic right, he seems to have a good handle on the state of health care in Maine but only nascent ideas for reform. He cited Cianbro and Jackson Labs as having models of preventative care that Maine could emulate, but declined to discuss how they could be translated into state health care policy.
The only issue where Cutler seems comfortable talking about detailed new policy proposals is in the field of energy, where he has a long background, including an energy policy position in the Carter administration. Cutler is specifically interested in electricity prices, which he calls “the single biggest lever in the Maine economy.” He'd like to see a new “public actor” in the energy system in Maine, a state entity that could access capital, enter into public-private partnerships, and could even take ownership of distribution and generation systems in order to increase efficiency and output.
Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin professor and frequent campaign consultant, wrote in his book This Splendid Game, one of the few works on Maine electoral politics, that Longley and King succeeded by targeting particular demographics in Maine that are more likely to vote independent, specifically Franco-Americans and urban professionals in southern Maine. When I asked if the campaign would be targeting these or other groups, Cutler was outright dismissive of Potholm's theory and said the campaign, at this stage at least, wasn't distinguishing demographically.
Cutler and O'Meara did, however, agree with another piece of Potholm's assessment of the King campaign – the idea that early TV ads during the party primaries were essential in establishing King as a viable alternative to the major party candidates.
“We plan to run ads even before that,” said Cutler.
Early ads will likely help Cutler's name recognition, which is an area where he lags far behind the historical examples of both King and Longley. While Cutler has a long resume, including work in government, the private sector, and on corporate and non-profit boards, most of his career has been out of state and far under the radar of Maine voters.
Cutler seems to have the money and the personal drive of King and Longley, and a similar wide-open political landscape, but not yet the name recognition or a solid policy platform. As the campaign for governor heats up over the next few months, we'll soon know whether these or other factors make him the next Angus King or just another Barbara Merrill.