Four years ago, when Republicans were sweeping the boards in many midterm contests, the Tea Party faction had one of its biggest and strangest victories in Maine. Biggest, in that the Tea Party Republican candidate who became Maine's governor, Paul LePage, is arguably the most right-wing governor in the country, serving in what is far from the most right-wing state. Strangest, in that he eked out a victory not over the Democratic candidate, who faded badly in the last weeks of the campaign, but over the independent Eliot Cutler.
That race four years ago was full of what-ifs. What if the Democrats, when it became clear that their candidate (Libby Mitchell) was sinking to a distant third, had explicitly or implicitly thrown in the towel or backed Cutler—similar to what is happening now in the Senate race in Kansas? What if fewer people had voted early, before it became clear that the real race was between Cutler and LePage? What if the Maine moderate/centrists who have sent the likes of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Angus King to Washington had a clearer picture of how hardline LePage was going to be in office? What if the dynamics had shifted a few days earlier, so that Cutler had caught up in time? In the end LePage beat Cutler by 10,000 votes, with Mitchell another 100,000 behind.
As I wrote back in 2010, Eliot Cutler and his wife Melanie are close friends of ours; their daughter Abby, who is now a doctor, once worked for The Atlantic. That meant I wasn't a dispassionate observer, but also that I knew Eliot well enough to be enthusiastic about what he could have done as governor.
This year two things are similar: LePage has been running as a Republican, and Cutler as an independent. The big difference is that the Democrats have unified earlier, and more powerfully, behind a stronger candidate than last time. This is Representative Mike Michaud, from Maine's northern—and poor, and rural—Second Congressional District.
Two months ago, I noted that Angus King, who won statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate as an independent, had endorsed Eliot Cutler. Since then, the race has fallen into a pattern with Michaud and LePage closely matched at just under 40 percent support, with Cutler below 20 percent, even after strong performances in a recent string of debates.
Yesterday two significant press conferences occurred. First, Eliot Cutler said that if people supported him but thought he could not win, they had his blessing to vote strategically—that is, to act as if it were a run-off between the other two candidates, even though he was staying in the race.
Then, his crucial supporter Angus King said that, in effect, he would be voting strategically, and switched his endorsement to Mike Michaud. As King put it (via a Politico story):
“Eliot Cutler is a fine man who would make a good governor of our state,” King said in a statement. “But, like Eliot, I too am a realist. After many months considering the issues and getting to know the candidates, it is clear that the voters of Maine are not prepared to elect Eliot in 2014 .… The good news is that we still have a chance to elect a governor who will represent the majority of Maine people: my friend and colleague, Mike Michaud.”
These moves obviously change the nature of the race, and they avoid another potential what-if: What if a clear majority of Maine's voters wanted not to have Paul LePage for another four years, but got just that because of a split in the liberal-centrist vote?
This also heightens the importance of what Eliot Cutler said yesterday, after saying that his supporters should feel free to pay attention to the polls when considering their vote:
For those voters who have been seized with anxiety and who don’t want fear to become an indelible hallmark of politics in Maine I have a single request: Regardless of whether you vote for me or someone else, please join me in supporting the proposed citizens’ initiative on ranked choice voting and sign a petition at the polls on November 4 to bring ranked choice voting to a vote of the people in a referendum.
The machinery of democracy is already flawed in enough ways, inadvertent and intentional, and the match between party alignment and popular wishes is already sufficiently askew, that we need to seize any opportunity to fix easily correctible errors. So if I were in Maine, in addition to considering "strategic" voting, I would sign that petition. People of Maine, over to you.