Independents make up the largest voting block in Maine, with 37 percent of voters registered with neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties. The state motto, “Dirigo,” or, I Lead, is sometimes invoked as a justification for what some have called the state's “fairly schizophrenic election results.” The state’s most beloved politician is the ever-affable Independent Senator Angus King, whose cult of admirers provides a ready-made base for aspiring third party candidates.
So it’s only natural that Maine’s Independent politicians would like to have their part in the renaissance of third-party candidates that is shaping up to be a defining factor in this year’s midterms. In Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado, and Alaska, among others, Independent and third-party candidates pose meaningful threats to their Democratic and Republican challengers.
The same dynamic exists in the three-way Maine gubernatorial race, which, thanks to the continued split between Maine Independents and Democrats, looks like it might very well result in the re-election of Republican Paul LePage, America’s craziest governor.
Recent polls have the Democratic candidate, Congressman Michael Michaud, maintaining a thin lead over LePage, 40 percent to 38 percent, with the Independent, Eliot Cutler, trailing well behind at 15 percent. (Others have Michaud and Culter polling slightly higher.) Twenty days ahead of Election Day, Republicans should be exceedingly pleased with these numbers. LePage, who should never have had a second shot at the governorship, now actually has a decent shot at winning.
And he knows it, because this is how he got elected the first time around. With every passing day, Maine’s gubernatorial race increasingly resembles that of 2010, when Cutler split the liberal vote with Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell, 36.5 percent to 19.2 percent, thereby handing victory to LePage.
“This year, the race has the same structure to it, with ... Cutler getting 15 to 20 percent of the vote,” Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, told the Huffington Post. “If Cutler stays in that range, the governor has a very good chance of winning. If he drops below 15, it presents a more difficult pathway to victory.”
If LePage wins again, he’d be the first popularly elected governor to win two consecutive terms with the support of less than 40 percent of Maine voters, as The Washington Post’s Niraj Choksi points out.
It’s hard to understate the damage that LePage has wrought on the state, and scarier still to imagine what four more years would mean for Maine’s already sputtering economy. The governor is determined to build upon his already substantial cuts to welfare and social assistance programs, in a state where in 2011, about one in six residents received foodstamps, according to the Wall Street Journal. LePage recently reinstated work requirements for food stamps, vetoed a Medicaid expansion bill that would have benefited 70,000 low-income voters, and has likened social security to “welfare, pure and simple.”
But rather than cut his losses and pull out of the race, as many have entreated him to do, Eliot Cutler is pushing ahead with his campaign in the belief that a late surge will catapult him to the front of the race. Cutler did benefit from a late surge in 2010, but it wasn’t enough to win. In the current race, Cutler has far outspent both LePage and Michaud (with much of his funding coming of his own pocket) and now has significantly less cash on hand to spend in the next 20 days. “We don’t believe in any sort of surge,” said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, who says the Democrats are running “the biggest field program that the party's ever run in an off year.” And as Jeffrey Selinger points out, Michaud is significantly more popular in the state than Libby Mitchell, Cutler's Democratic opponent from 2010. Given all that, a surge large enough to make Cutler overtake LePage seems unlikely, though his campaign is claiming one is already underway.
The trouble for Democrats is that compared to Michaud, Cutler actually seems to be the better candidate—he has largely Democratic views, much like Angus King, who endorsed him in August. His roots are solid: Former Maine Governor and Carter administration veteran Edmund Muskie was Cutler’s first political mentor. And his positions are soundly liberal: “Ironically, Cutler is the only genuine liberal in the race. In contrast to his opponents he has been liberal on gun control, gay rights, and pro choice forever,” said Harold Pachios, former chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. Michaud has a much more shady record on abortion rights, and is one of the few Democrats to have accepted campaign contributions from the National Right to Life Committee. He has also voted against gun control measures. Both Cutler and Michaud have secured GOP endorsements from Republicans fed up with the LePage administration (or, if we’re being cynical, perhaps they’re hoping to prop up both candidates in order to help out the governor).
“I’m really tired of hearing the phrase ‘splitting the vote.’ I prefer the phrase ‘combining votes,’” Cutler said at a press conference in Portland after receiving King’s endorsement. There's some validity to that, but what is undeniably true is that the race puts Maine’s left-leaning voters in a very tough spot: Vote for the best candidate or vote for the candidate who can win.