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home : • politics : • government
January 27, 2020

9/11/2014 11:23:00 AM
Eye on Augusta: Big Money, Spoiler Label & Other Challenges for Independent Candidates
Independent Owen Casas campaigning at a home in Camden (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
Independent Owen Casas campaigning at a home in Camden (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
by Andy O’Brien

"So, I just wanted to let you know that I exist," said Owen Casas in the doorway of a Camden home as he concluded his campaign pitch for the Maine House of Representatives one hot August morning.

Getting name recognition has been one of the biggest challenges for the 30-year-old stone worker as he canvasses the newly created District 94 towns of Camden, Rockport and Islesboro. Not only is this Casas' first campaign for elected office, but he chose to enter the three-way race against three-term incumbent Democrat Joan Welsh and Republican Ronald Bovasso without the backing of a major political party. However, not being affiliated with a major party does have its advantages, he says.

"One of the coolest things is that people don't immediately shut you down," said Casas, who considers himself too socially liberal for the Republicans and too fiscally conservative for Democrats. "They rarely say, 'Go away because I disagree with everything you stand for. I'm a little more disarming as an independent."

Casas is one of 34 candidates running for the Maine Legislature this year who are not affiliated with either the Republicans or Democrats. That's a dramatic increase from the 21 independent and third-party candidates who ran in 2010 and 18 in 2012. A Gallup poll released in January found that a record 42 percent of Americans now identify as political independents, which is the highest number the firm has measured since it began surveying voters 25 years ago. At the same time, Republican membership is at a low of 25 percent. Democrats are at 31 percent.

In Maine, where independents make up about 37 percent of the electorate (Democrats, 32 percent; Republicans, 27 percent; Greens, 4 percent), independents have won three of the last nine gubernatorial elections. The 2012 election was a banner year for Maine independents with the election of independent US Senator Angus King along with five independents to the Maine Legislature.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler maintains that with social media, modern technology and communications, the political party system is quickly becoming obsolete.

"We learned in our civics classes in junior high school that, even though it's never mentioned in the Constitution, the two-party system is sort of the secret sauce of American democracy," said Cutler in a recent phone interview. "I think that was true for most of the last hundred years, and I don't think it's true anymore."

Flood of Big Money

Cutler said that the biggest barrier to getting independents elected is the amount of money flooding into American politics, which he says generally goes to one party or the other, with the effect of stifling independent voices. So far this year, various outside groups have spent nearly $2.2 million to influence the 2014 election, which is on track to smash the $4 million record of independent expenditures set in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Prior to a recent U.S. District Court decision, only gubernatorial candidates affiliated with a major party could collect the maximum of $3,000 from donors, which included $1,500 for the primary and $1,500 for the general election. Independents were only allowed a maximum of $1,500 for the general election, because they don't have primary races, as party candidates do. Thanks to a challenge by supporters of Eliot Cutler, now they can collect the same amount as party candidates.

However, the court decision narrowly focuses on gubernatorial candidates and does not apply to privately financed independent legislative candidates who don't use public funds from the clean elections program. Independents like House District 95 candidate Gary Sukeforth of Appleton are still only allowed to take a maximum of $375 per election, which he says puts him at a competitive disadvantage against his Republican opponent, Wes Richardson of Warren. Even though Richardson didn't have a primary, he was still allowed a maximum of $750 per indidvidual donor.

But at the same time, if Richardson had had to spend a lot of money in a primary election and Sukeforth was still allowed to collect the same $750 maximum contribution for the general election, upping the limits could be considered unfair for Richardson. Maine Ethics Commission Director Jonathan Wayne said it's likely the commission will be considering legislation next session that addresses the contribution limits for independents.

As independent Rep. Ben Chipman of Portland notes, independent candidates are always at a major disadvantage because they don't have the resources of a major party to invest in candidate training and recruitment, phone banking, door-to-door canvassing and comprehensive voter databases. Major parties also often spend large amounts of money in advertising to help their members in competitive races.

"They have to figure out all of the deadlines, reporting, and how to run a campaign," said Chipman. "It's actually a miracle that independents can even get elected, given that they really don't have any help from anybody."

Spoiling the Democratic Process

Independents also are often perceived as "spoiling it" for another candidate, one who has a better chance of beating the least desirable candidate. In three out of the past five Maine gubernatorial elections, the winner was elected with less than 40 percent of the vote due to the presence of third-party and independent candidates. In 2010, the spoiler effect was best exemplified when Democrat Libby Mitchell and Eliot Cutler splintered the moderate and liberal vote, resulting in a win, with 38 percent of the vote, by the ultra-conservative Paul LePage. Cutler bristles at the spoiler label, which he hears on a constant basis.

"I'm a choice, not a spoiler," said Cutler. "Maine voters want choice. The only people who are complaining are die-hard partisans in either political party."

But with Cutler polling well behind the other two candidates - about 25 points behind - and without a party apparatus or well-funded support of outside groups, press releases and public debates are his primary outlets for exposure to voters. But as LePage still rides a solid base of 38 percent, it's not in the governor's interest to expose himself to more unscripted media coverage, given his legendary history of gaffes. And for Democrat Mike Michaud's campaign, who would prefer that Cutler just disappear, there's certainly no benefit for Michaud to debate Cutler alone. So far, there are only six gubernatorial debates scheduled this year, starting the second week in October, about a week after voters will be able to vote by absentee ballot.

Independent Worries for Poliquin

While Democrats worry about the "Cutler effect," the presence of conservative independent Blaine Richardson in the Second Congressional race has become a headache for Republicans.

In 2012, Richardson, a former Navy captain from Belfast, registered as a Republican to run against centrist Republican Kevin Raye in the Republican primary for Congress and received a respectable 40 percent of the vote. Richardson has since become unenrolled, arguing that the two parties "are nothing more than corporations" that are "all about the machine in Washington."

Although Richardson says he is more philosophically aligned with Republican Bruce Poliquin on government spending, he has been much more outspoken on red-meat conservative issues like illegal immigration, which he said could be curbed by declaring martial law on the US southern border and deploying military personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan to patrol it. So far, Richardson's message appears to be resonating with a sizable minority of voters in the Second District. In a recent poll commissioned by the Poliquin campaign, Democrat Emily Cain is leading Poliquin 37 to 33 in a district widely considered to lean conservatively. Richardson, who only has $282 cash on-hand according to his latest financial reports (compared to Cain's $243,211 and Poliquin's $291,503), registered 6 percent support.

The polling data was enough to move Poliquin to call Richardson and ask him to drop out of the race. Richardson would have none of it.

"I said quit is not in a Navy pilot's lexicon," said Richardson. "Bruce did horrible in his run for governor and senate and so now he's running for the U.S. House. He's one of the richest men in Maine and he didn't fare well last time."

Poliquin's campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but he has announced that he will not participate in any debate with Cain if Richardson is present. A Cain campaign spokesperson said Cain will participate in any debate where all three candidates are invited, but so far no debate has been scheduled.

Calls for Electoral Reform

Meanwhile, Cutler has been calling for an "open primary" system that he says would make it more fair for independents by putting all of the candidates on the same ballot for a September primary vote. All voters would be able to participate in the primary regardless of political affiliation, and the top two candidates with the most votes would then have six weeks to campaign for the general election in November.

Former US Senator Olympia Snowe has recently championed open primaries as a way to decrease political polarization, but such a reform hasn't been proposed in Maine since 1997. Cutler pointed to California's "top-two" primary election system, which passed by referendum in 2010, as a model for Maine to follow.

"The only objections you're going to hear to the system California has are from the two parties and their partisans who are trying to hold on to an advantage in the electoral process," said Cutler. "They don't deserve any."

But while supporters of open primaries say that it would increase voter participation in elections, a May report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the state's first experience with the system in 2012 resulted in the second-lowest voter turnout on record.

The authors of the report wrote that independents appear to be "fickle primary voters," inclined to only vote when it's a close race. They also found that an open primary can result in two candidates from the same political party becoming nominated for the general election, which can dampen voter turnout.

"Moreover, it appears these same-party contests are of less interest to voters on average than are races between two candidates of different parties," the report stated.

Maine GOP spokesman David Sorensen argues that keeping separate primaries prevents liberals from voting in Republican primaries for the weaker of the two candidates, which he said would happen if unerolled voters were allowed to participate in primaries.

"We're talking about the traditions of our democracy," said Sorensen. "To meddle with that because Eliot Cutler is looking for a way to get independents elected is short-sighted and self-serving."

And it's the one thing that Sorensen and Democratic Chairman Ben Grant appear to agree on.

"Everybody in the state of Maine has the ability to organize a party," said Grant. "If they're unsatisfied with the three parties that exist now, they're more than welcome to create another one and gain ballot access that way."

Will Cutler Stay Until the End?

When asked if he'll reconsider his candidacy in the waning days of the campaign if he's still polling at 13 percent, Cutler says, No way.

"There is no chance that I'm going to reconsider [my candidacy]," said Cutler. "I'm in the race, I'm on the ballot, and I intend to win."

With Labor Day long passed, negative ads perfuming the airwaves, and his dismal showing in the polls this time around, he's got a lot of work to do to pull that rabbit out of the hat.

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