Third-Party Watch in Maine

In most states, independent candidacies are pipe dreams. Maine is one of the rare states in which they can and do win. Here's what this year's race for the governorship shows.

First, a disclosure. Eliot Cutler, who nearly won the race to become Maine’s governor four years ago and is now running for the job again, is a close family friend. My wife and I often hung around with him and his wife Melanie when we were all living and working in Beijing. He ran an American law firm's office there; she was in practice as a doctor. The Cutlers’ daughter Abby, now herself a doctor, was once a young editorial staffer at The Atlantic.

Eliot Cutler

During the 2010 race, I did an item saying that if I were from Maine, I would enthusiastically vote for Eliot for governor. This was in keeping with my Official Policy that journalists should steer clear of endorsing candidates except (a) in presidential races, where every American gets a say, and (b) for personal friends, as explained in this 2006 item about then-Senate candidate Jim Webb.

The drama of the 2010 Maine governor’s race was that Cutler was running as an Independent, against the Tea Party Republican Paul LePage and the Democrat Libby Mitchell. In most states, third-party candidacies are pipe dreams. Maine is an exception. Angus King, who succeeded Olympia Snowe as U.S. senator, is an independent who had previously been a popular independent governor. James Longley, governor in the 1970s, was also an independent.

Paul LePage is about as right-wing a governor as now serves anywhere in the U.S., and is considerably to the right of the other major statewide officials, Senators King and Susan Collins. (Maine does not have a lieutenant governor.) LePage made it into office with only 38.3 percent of the vote, as Cutler and Mitchell split the anti-Tea Party majority. Eliot started out behind; closed fast in the final month of the campaign; and ended up just short of LePage, with 36.5 percent. That was almost twice the Democratic total (19 percent), and by most accounts he would have won if the race had gone on a few days longeror if fewer people had voted early, before it became clear that he was the stronger anti-LePage candidate.

This year the Democrats have put a more concerted effort into fielding a candidate, Representative Mike Michaud. The Democrats argue that they offer the better prospect for getting rid of LePage; Cutler argues that he would be the more policy-experienced and ambitious governor.

In that contest, I'm with Eliot, whom I've known and respected since were both young staffers in the Jimmy Carter administration. He worked in the White House on Carter's prescient energy policy, and had previously worked for Maine Senator Ed Muskie on the original Clean Water Act. I've talked with him a million times about the problems and opportunities for his state. He was the one who first suggested that we visit Eastport, Maine, as part of our American Futures series.

Of course what I think doesn't matter to anyone in Maine. What might is the endorsement yesterday from Angus King. Because polls have consistently shown that most Maine voters would rather not have LePage as their governor, King addressed the "strategic voting" question: whether a vote for the Independent candidate would make it more likely that LePage stays in.

King, one of Maine’s most popular politicians and a former two-term governor, said that Maine voters need to choose the best candidate for the job, regardless of political party or whatever perceived chance of winning the candidate has three months before Election Day.

“What people have to cross over is this idea of trying to think of all the political angles,” King said. “If the people of Maine look at these candidates and say, ‘Who will make the best governor, who has the ideas, who has the best thinking?’—Eliot wins. That’s why I believe he’s going to. That’s the calculation.”

For me this race holds mainly personal interest. For the country, it's worth watching as a test case of possible alternatives to major-party duopoly. Everyone wishes the two main parties were less encrusted and impregnable. Maine is one of the few places where a third-party alternative actually has a chance. We'll see how it goes.

Here is a sample of Eliot Cutler's current campaign themes. Having admitted my bias, I'll make this offer: If the LePage and Michaud campaigns have comparable 30-second campaign videos, I will post them as well.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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