Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler got a bit of a boost last week when independent U.S. Sen. Angus King endorsed him.
Sen. King and Mr. Cutler seem to share the belief that only an independent can break through partisan gridlock to get things done. The only trouble with that belief is that the Maine Legislature does not really suffer from partisan gridlock the way the U.S. Congress does. Republicans and Democrats have pretty much managed to work together, despite the divisive presence of Gov. Paul LePage.
To hear Cutler and King tell it, there is little difference between Rs and Ds. Both parties are controlled by moneyed interests, the Rs by Corporate America and the Ds by Big Labor. I remember thinking something like that back in 2000, when I voted for independent Ralph Nader. Despite the fact that Al Gore still does not appeal to me, it turned out there was a big difference between Gore and George W. Bush, who won the presidency by a mere 537 votes in Florida. Not apt to make that mistake again.
The dilemma we have here in Maine this November is that we have an enormously unpopular conservative Republican governor, but there is a real and present danger that he will be re-elected if Cutler and Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud split the moderate-progressive vote. Either man would beat LePage handily in a head-to-head race, but anything can happen between now and November in a three-way race.
While Democrats are making a good show of standing behind Michaud, I worry that his support may not be solid enough. I have to believe that he lost some support in the 2nd Congressional District when he came out as a gay man last year, while some 1st District liberals like myself find his past record on a number of social issues troublesome.
If Cutler starts moving up in the polls – which had him a distant third last month, with numbers in the teens – and he begins looking like a viable candidate again, I’m concerned the unstable base of Democratic support for Michaud could erode, as it did in 2010 for Libby Mitchell.
Hard-core Republicans share LePage’s political philosophy (anti-tax, anti-government, anti-welfare, anti-immigrant, anti-environment, pro-business), so despite the constant chaos and controversy that is the LePage administration, nothing the governor might do is likely to erode his base of support. He’s got a solid lock on the reactionary vote.
If Cutler wins, that’s fine with me, but if he hands the race to LePage, we will all suffer. Cutler’s campaign got so tired of the spoiler complaint that back in May Cutler offered potential supporters a deal (of sorts):
“If on the day before the election, or the morning you have to go vote, if you don’t think I can win, vote for someone else,” Cutler offered. “But if everyone in Maine who thinks I’d be the best governor sticks with me, helps me, goes forward with me, we’re going to win in a walk. Deal?”
No deal. That’s about as empty and disingenuous as a deal gets. Voters are already free to decide who to vote for on Election Day. They don’t need Cutler’s permission to vote for one of his opponents. The only way I would consider voting for Cutler at this point is if he offered voters a new deal, a real deal.
Here’s the deal: If Cutler promises to bow out and endorse Michaud should he still be behind in the polls by double digits on Oct. 15, I will consider voting for him. In other words, if he is within striking distance two weeks before the election, he might get my vote. If he’s not, he should get out of the way and spare us all four more years of pain and suffering. So Cutler should work hard between now and Oct. 15 and reassess his viability at that point.
Unfortunately, Cutler is probably banking on the same last-minute surge that legitimized him in 2010, so he is unlikely to make the ultimate sacrifice for the public good. King’s endorsement now makes it less likely that Cutler will drop out and more likely that he will end up being the spoiler we all fear he will be.
King thinks Cutler will win. I hope he’s right. But to me, it is far less important whether Cutler or Michaud win, than it is that LePage does not.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.