Party Poopers

Are Maine voters declaring their independence?

By Edgar Allen Beem

One of former Governor Angus King’s favorite punch lines as he campaigns as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate is something a well-wisher said to him on the campaign trail.

“All my life,” the man told King, “I’ve wanted a chance to vote for none-of-the-above, and you’re it.”

None-of-the-above? Translation: not a Republican, not a Democrat, not a member of the Green Party, a truly independent political leader.

Maine, of course, has a tradition of political independence. Republican Senators Margaret Chase Smith, William Cohen, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins all earned reputations for occasionally breaking ranks with their party. In 1974, and again in 1994, Maine voters elected independent governors, James Longley and Angus King respectively. And in 2010, independent Eliot Cutler came out of nowhere and almost pulled off an upset win in the gubernatorial race, losing to Republican Paul LePage by only ten thousand votes out of more than five hundred thousand cast.

Now Angus King is heavily favored to win the Senate race, running well ahead of Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers and Democrat State Senator Cynthia Dill in the race to replace three-term U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe. The strength of independents such as King and Cutler has folks in Maine asking a lot of questions about the future of political parties in a state increasingly inclined toward ticket-splitting.

In February, Olympia Snowe made the surprise announcement that she would retire from the Senate, saying her decision not to seek a fourth term was predicated on her frustration with partisan gridlock, “the dysfunction and political polarization” in Congress. “Bipartisanship” and “compromise,” the principles she embraced and embodied, have become dirty words in Washington, especially in her own party, some members of which branded Snowe a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Even her former aide, Charlie Summers, now running for Snowe’s vacated seat himself, refused to endorse his old boss over a Tea Party Republican candidate when she was still considering whether to run for re-election (his choice ultimately polled only 11 percent in the Republican primary).

Angus King, who enjoys first name recognition to rival Olympia Snowe’s, believes that he can help overcome the partisan gridlock in Washington by virtue of his independence. Indeed, that is the premise of his campaign. “If Olympia couldn’t do it, it’s impossible for a partisan to do it,” says King. “The only chance to break through it is to have someone who isn’t a partisan.”

King subscribes to the widely held belief that the two-party system has broken down because Democrats have become too liberal and Republicans too conservative. Democrats are seen as too beholden to labor unions, Republicans to corporations and the religious right.

“Voters are disenchanted with the parties,” says King, blaming “party primaries in which only activists vote” for the nomination of candidates without broad popular appeal.

“The two political parties are less and less a reflection of the American electorate,” says Eliot Cutler, who has devoted much of his time since losing the 2010 gubernatorial race to establishing OneMaine, a political action committee devoted to supporting moderate candidates more interested in working for solutions than party dominance.

“Eliot feels the Democratic Party has lost its way. I feel the same way about the Republican Party,” says Ted O’Meara, a Portland political consultant who ran Cutler’s 2010 campaign and now works for the marketing firm Garrand & Company. “Both parties have gone to their corners, so it’s not so much the rise of the serious independent candidate as it is that most Maine people operate in the middle range.”

The chairs of Maine Democratic and Republican parties insist their parties have not abandoned the moderate middle ground.

“The people making that analysis have an agenda, which is to position themselves between the two parties,” says Ben Grant, chair of the Maine Democratic Party. “Republicans have moved way to the right, but Democrats have stayed where they have been for the past twenty years.”

“Democrats have become a lot more liberal than twenty years ago,” counters Charlie Webster, chair of the Maine Republican Party. “Republicans are as much in the middle as they used to be.”

Jeffrey Selinger, a Bowdoin College government professor and author of the forthcoming bookMaking Political Parties Safe for Democracy, is an informal advisor to the King campaign. “The polite answer to who is responsible for the polarization is, ‘Both are equally responsible,’ ” says Selinger. “That’s not the truthful answer. Society has become more socially liberal and Democrats have become more socially liberal. Society has also become marginally more fiscally conservative, but Republicans have become radically more fiscally conservative. They have moved to the right with breakneck speed.”

Independent and third party candidates have often been seen as spoilers in past Maine elections, not garnering near enough votes to win themselves but taking enough away from other candidates to influence the outcome of the race. Since the 1980s, however, there have been more independent voters in Maine than Republicans or Democrats.

As of June, 2012, the Secretary of State’s Office listed 331,222 independents (unenrolled voters), 294,404 Democrats, 257,529 Republicans, and 31,220 Green Party voters. Those numbers mean that independents wield decisive power in Maine.

Democratic party chair Ben Grant, however, doesn’t see any erosion of party loyalty. Maine voters have been weaned off straight party ticket voting since the big box was eliminated from ballots in 1972. “Every election is candidate-driven,” says Grant. “An election is about the person.”

If elections are popularity contests, that bodes well for popular former Governor King in his senatorial bid. “Angus King does not represent a party,” says Jeffrey Selinger. “He represents himself and people love Angus King.”

A June Portland Press Herald poll showed King favored by 55 percent of respondents, while Republican Charlie Summers was the pick of 27 percent, and Democrat Cynthia Dill of only 7 percent. Better-known Democrats such as Second District Congressman Mike Michaud, First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and former Governor John Baldacci decided not to challenge King.

Democratic nominee Cynthia Dill has complained that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not supported her, and Jeff Selinger thinks he knows why.

“If I were working in Washington for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee,” says Selinger, “I would have told the major Democrats in Maine to get out of the way. It’s an opportunity for a person who is pro-choice, in favor of marriage equality and universal health care, who is reasonable, likable, and qualified, to take over. Whether he caucuses with the Democrats or not, Angus King is probably the best chance of keeping the Senate seat out of Republican hands that Democrats have.”

And some believe the best chance Democrats have to unseat Governor Paul LePage in 2014 is not to run against him.

LePage has been a controversial and divisive figure in his first two years in office. A poll conducted in June for WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio affiliate, showed that LePage had a 64 percent job approval rate among fellow Republicans but only a 21 percent approval rating among Democrats and a 36 percent rating from independents.

Political consultant Dennis Bailey served as Governor Angus King’s communications director, ran Rosa Scarcelli’s campaign in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary, and then took on independent Shawn Moody’s campaign for governor in 2010.

“LePage’s only hope,” says Bailey, “is to have a third candidate.”

Bailey, principal of Savvy Inc., of Portland, calculates that if LePage runs for re-election in 2014, he would likely lose a one-on-one race with a strong Democrat such as Representative Mike Michaud or former Maine Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree. But independent Eliot Cutler will be in the mix again as well.

“The only way Cutler can win,” says Bailey, who posted the Cutler Files, an infamous Web site critical of Cutler in 2010, “is if the Democrats do the same thing [as they did this year in the Senate race] and put up a lame candidate.”

“I think the people who believe that if I run and a strong Democrat runs that the Democrat can’t win are right,” says Cutler. “Could I win? Possibly. But I don’t think a Democrat can.”

Though it is tempting to look at the strong showings by King and Cutler and conclude that Maine voters are declaring their independence, former Governor John Baldacci, a Democrat, warns that, “No two elections are alike.”

“Running for Senate is different than running for governor,” says Baldacci, now a consultant with the Pierce Atwood law firm. “People like to group these things together because it makes their narrative easier, but there is a difference. There’s also a difference between Angus and Eliot Cutler. They are two different people.”

“Eliot Cutler is going to be in the position of being the spoiler,” says Ben Grant, promising that there will be a strong Democratic candidate in the 2014 gubernatorial race. “He needs to decide if he wants to play that role. He is not Angus King.”

In the 2010 election, Paul LePage took 38.33 percent of the vote, Eliot Cutler 36.49 percent, and Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell came in a distant third with 19 percent. Cutler and Mitchell split the moderate-progressive vote, so the conservative LePage came away with the win. Cutler, who peaked in the last few days of the 2010 campaign, believes LePage’s slim margin of victory came from people who voted early by absentee ballot and could not vote for him at the last minute when Mitchell’s numbers failed to improve.

A great deal has been made of the fact that Paul LePage won the election with a plurality rather than a majority, as evidenced by the ubiquitous “61 percent” decals on cars designating people who want others to know they did not vote for LePage. But since Democrat Kenneth Curtis edged Republican James Erwin 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent in a two-man race in 1970, only two Maine governors have been elected by a majority — Democrat Joseph Brennan (61.8 percent) in 1982 and Angus King (58.6 percent) in 1998.

In 1994, however, Angus King actually won the governorship with a smaller percentage of the vote ( 35.4 percent) than LePage had in 2010. “I would have taken a run-off with Joe,” says King, who beat Joe Brennan by fewer than eight thousand votes.

King is a proponent of instant run-off elections such as the new ranked-choice system that the City of Portland used in 2011 to elect a mayor. Ranked-choice voting asks voters to rank the candidates in order of preference such that, if no candidate gets a majority on the first count, second and third place votes are counted until a majority is determined.

“We really should be thinking about run-off elections,” says King. “We could have both parties plus two or three independents and end up having a governor elected with 23 percent of the vote.”

“If there had been a run-off in 2010,” says Eliot Cutler, who also supports a run-off system, “I don’t think anyone in the state of Maine would question whether I would have beaten Paul LePage.”

That’s one of the few things Cutler and Dennis Bailey agree upon.

“If we’d had a run-off between the top two voter-getters,” Bailey concurs, “LePage would not have won.”

Run-off elections may or may not be in Maine’s political future, but more independent candidates surely will be. How Angus King and Eliot Cutler fare in their respective bids to win election as none-of-the-aboves will test the power of independents to sway moderate voters and, perhaps, to drag Republicans and Democrats back toward the center, even though neither party acknowledges having lost the moderate middle ground.

“The two parties have a strong hold on power,” says King. “They own the nominating process, yet they represent fewer and fewer people.”

“If Angus wins, and I run and win,” says Cutler, “Maine will be the first state in history with an independent senator and an independent governor at the same time.”

“If Maine elects an independent senator, as it appears it is going to do,” says former Cutler campaign manager Ted O’Meara, “I think that legitimizes strong independent candidates. Angus’ election will have national reverberations, and if [the balance of power] close in the Senate, he will be an influential senator.”