AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine elected an independent governor, James Longley, in 1974. The state’s voters did so again in 1994, electing Angus King. Will the 2014 gubernatorial election extend that 20-year pattern?
More than the 20-year cycle is repeating itself. The party makeup in the State House is aligning the same way, too.
King won the Blaine House in 1994 after rancor between a Republican governor and Democratically-controlled Legislature shut down state government and soured voters on both parties. Simmering hostility between Democrats in the Legislature, led by then-House speaker John Martin, and Republican Gov. John McKernan came to a head in July 1991, when an impasse over workers compensation reform stymied budget negotiations to the point that state government halted all but essential operations.
Tuesday’s election results, which returned Democrats to majority status in the Maine House and Senate after two years of Republican control, set up the first recurrence of a Republican governor working with a Legislature led by Democrats since the McKernan-Martin showdown.
The standoff, which prompted angry protests outside the State House, dragged on for 16 days. McKernan has not held elective office since Sen. Susan Collins, who then worked as McKernan’s commissioner of Professional and Financial Regulation during the workers compensation confrontation, earned the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1994, but finished third behind King and Democrat Joseph Brennan.
After McKernan, Mainers did not elect another Republican governor until 2010, when Gov. Paul LePage won a five-person contest.
As a candidate and during his first two years in office, LePage frequently condemned past Democratic administrations and legislatures. He’s often sparred verbally with Democratic legislators, some of whom are in line for leadership positions or committee chairmanships.
In large part, Democrats based their campaign to regain control of the Legislature on opposition to LePage’s agenda. But without big enough majorities to override a gubernatorial veto, Democrats in the Legislature will have to find a heretofore elusive working relationship with LePage — or Republican legislators — in order to pass a biennial budget, complete legislative redistricting and fulfill campaign promises.
“Each party and its leadership will have to be careful that they do not engage in confrontation that alienates the voters,” said Douglas Hodgkin, professor emeritus of political science at Bates College in Lewiston. “That said, they do have an interest in their own views and philosophy of government. They are going to disagree.”
If they disagree too vehemently in public, both parties run the risk of creating an opportunity for an independent candidate such as Eliot Cutler — who will not suffer from low name recognition as he did in 2010, when he finished a close second to LePage — to build a strong independent 2014 gubernatorial campaign against partisan gridlock in the State House.
King capitalized on voters’ frustration with Republicans and Democrats in 1994, and applied the anti-partisanship strategy even more effectively this year in his successful run for the U.S. Senate. Similarly, Longley’s election in 1974 occurred amid strong public antipathy toward party politics engendered by the Watergate scandal.
LePage and legislative Democrats — especially those eyeing a gubernatorial run in 2014 — also must be careful not to step too far away from the political principles that helped elect them, Hodgin said. Doing so in the name of avoiding stalemate in the State House would alienate hard-core ideologues who might mount primary challenges or, worse, defect from the party.
“They have that incentive to move to where the bulk of the votes are,” Hodgkin said of past elected officials who found themselves in the same position that LePage and Democrats in the 126th Legislature will. “But in their broad coalition, they have to balance tension within the coalition. … They try to go to the center, but they are constrained by their base because if they go too far, their base could split off and become one of the third parties.”
Elected officials who compromise to satisfy voters not regularly engaged in politics other than on Election Day are sometimes punished in the short term to preserve the long-term ideological purity of the party, Hodgkin said.
For LePage, that test could come from Maine Republicans whose libertarian approach to government aligned with Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential bid. While many Paul supporters criticized the Maine Republican Party about its handling of this year’s presidential preference caucuses and party conventions, they remained firm in their loyalty to LePage.
With statewide public support that has consistently hovered around 40 percent, LePage needs strong backing from the Paul wing of the Maine Republican Party. That would be especially true if, as has become the norm in Maine since the 1970s, the 2014 governor’s race involves three or more candidates.
After Tuesday’s defeats in legislative and congressional races, the Maine Republican Party — which is scheduled to hold leadership elections on Dec. 1 — will likely undergo a major reorganization, according to political consultant and Republican Liberty Caucus of Maine vice chairman Vic Berardelli.
“The party is going to have to reorganize,” Berardelli said. “The No. 1 thing moving forward will be the LePage re-election campaign. Nothing done organizationally should have a negative impact on that man.”
If that anticipated Maine Republican Party reorganization takes shape in a way that motivates the Paul contingent to abandon the GOP for the Libertarians or a new party, LePage would likely suffer collateral political damage.
For Democrats, the challenge will be to identify stronger candidates for statewide office. In 2010’s gubernatorial election and in this year’s U.S. Senate race, the Democrats’ candidates — Libby Mitchell and Cynthia Dill, respectively — fared poorly, winning less than 20 percent of the vote in 2010 and barely 13 percent this year.
Polls show that King drew a high percentage of Democrats to vote for him this year, just as Cutler received a late surge of support from registered Democrats in 2010. With the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Susan Collins on the 2014 ballot, Democrats will have to guard against allowing voters — especially unenrolled voters who lean slightly left — to assume that Cutler or another independent represents a new nonpartisan version of what used to be described as moderate Democrats.
For decades, unenrolled voters have outnumbered Democrats and Republicans in Maine. Hodgkin argues against the notion that they constitute an identifiable voting bloc. He noted that King siphoned more Republican voters than Democrats when he ran in 1994, and that Longley also won by cutting into Republican James Erwin’s base.
Independent candidates often suffer from lack of party organization, Hodgkin said, but they benefit from Maine’s tradition of holding town meetings and nonpartisan elections for municipal office.
“To some extent, our experience with having elected Longley and King and having strong candidates such as Cutler does feed upon itself so that voters are much more willing to abandon the party,” he said. “So many of our communities have town meeting forms of government and are used to nonpartisan selection of the candidates. That town meeting form of government accustoms Maine voters to picking candidates without regard to party.”
John Rensenbrink, a retired Bowdoin College professor and founder of the Maine Green Party, agrees that unenrolled voters can’t be considered as a single bloc. But he believes that Democrats’ and Republicans’ growing penchant for using “fractional and abusive language” and fear to sway voters could lead to a backlash that benefits independent candidates and third parties.
“People do vote in reaction to what they don’t like, especially if it’s motivated by fear,” he said. Independents and, he hopes, Greens must “affirm that there is a real choice not only in the candidacy but in the way issues are presented.”
Ideology matters to party insiders, but outcomes matter to everyday voters. In a state with a history of unenrolled voters electing independent candidates — including five to the incoming Legislature — Democrats and Republicans in the State House both have a vested interest in working together to achieve outcomes that convince Mainers to stop seeking alternatives to their parties.
Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.