Maine has a long tradition of supporting independent candidates, most recently with Sen. Angus King in 2012. But when independent candidate Eliot Cutler launches his second gubernatorial run in Maine on Tuesday, he'll be greeted with Democratic criticisms that he's helping hand the race to Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
"To call me a spoiler now when I got twice the votes that the Democrat got in 2010?" Cutler asks when probed about comments made about his candidacy by Democratic Governors Association chairman Peter Shumlin and other Democrats. "This is just babble. It's meaningless babble."
The Democratic charge against Cutler is straight-forward. Shumlin said in May: "A vote for Eliot Cutler is a vote for Paul LePage." Early public polling suggests that the GOP governor would lose badly in a one-on-one matchup against Rep. Mike Michaud, the likely Democratic nominee. But in a three-way race like the one that allowed him to win the governorship with just 38 percent of the vote in 2010, LePage's chances of winning a second term increase dramatically.
Cutler has his own argument to make: After starting the 2010 gubernatorial race as a virtual unknown, he lost to LePage by less than two percentage points and outpaced Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell by 17 points. That performance, coupled with Maine's history of electing independent candidates, make him more credible contender than fringe candidate.
These two competing narratives, along with the often-controversial LePage's uphill fight for another four years, combine to make Maine's gubernatorial contest one of the most compelling races of the 2014 cycle. And Cutler's candidacy, while problematic for Democrats, virtually assures a competitive race of some form or another.
Unlike in 2010, Cutler, who released a 104-page policy book last week, begins this race as a known quantity able to tap into an established network of donors. But he'll likely face a stronger Democratic candidate than the underwhelming Mitchell. Michaud, the six-term congressman from Maine's 2nd District, was the party's top recruit and seems less likely to cede usual Democratic voters to an independent candidate.
But Cutler says one of the biggest problems with Democrats labeling him a spoiler is the underlying assumption that coalitions will closely mirror those from 2010. "There's a real possibility, if not a likelihood, that during the course of this campaign many people who voted for LePage -- independents, Republicans -- in 2010 and who are to one degree or another dissatisfied with his performance in office are going to come to the opinion that either he shouldn't or can't win reelection," Cutler said. In other words, any loss of support to Michaud could theoretically be offset by attracting disenchanted LePage voters.
Cutler also draws optimism from Maine's history of supporting independent candidates. Prior to winning the Senate race last fall, Sen. Angus King won two terms as governor running as an independent. Since King's first win in 1994, an independent candidate has received at least 20 percent of the vote in every Maine gubernatorial election but one. King is the only independent in that stretch to actually pull off a victory.
Cutler hopes that tendency to think beyond the two parties pays dividends for him the second time around. Asked if Michaud would make a better governor than LePage, Cutler said: "I don't think about better. I think about best."