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Legacy Content / ON THE TRAIL

Independents Rise In New England

Three Strong Candidates Are Mounting Bids Based In Part On Breaking Partisan Gridlock

March 23, 2010

It's not just voters who say they're fed up with partisan politics. Former activists and elected officials are eschewing their party label, too. But instead of dropping out of politics altogether, some have decided to pick up the independent mantle as a way to stay involved.

Three of them -- former Democrats Eliot Cutler and Tim Cahill and former Republican Lincoln Chafee -- are mounting serious third-party bids for governor in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, respectively. All three come from established political backgrounds. Cutler worked in Democratic circles for years, including a stint at the Office of Management and Budget under President Carter. Chafee is part of a pedigreed political family. And Cahill has served as state treasurer since 2003.

If the Tea Party movement is a reaction to the excess of government, these three are reacting to deficiencies in government.

 

All three shed their labels not as an ideological protest, but in reaction to partisan gridlock and status quo showboating. They share something else in common as well: Their media consultant, former Gore and Kerry campaign adviser Tad Devine.

Devine's decision to work for all three of these candidates stems from the many relationships the Rhode Island native has cultivated over the last 30 years in politics. Even so, he could not have predicted that just four years after helping to defeat Chafee, he would be helping the former senator beat a Democrat -- and a Republican -- in the open gubernatorial contest.

In Massachusetts, Devine joins with McCain '08 strategists John Weaver and Mark Salter to defeat incumbent Gov. Deval Patrick (D). Patrick, of course, is a good friend of President Obama, and Obama's 2008 manager, David Plouffe, is advising the Patrick campaign.

Even so, Devine doesn't worry he's selling out his Democratic street cred. In an interview this week, Devine told me that the Democratic Governors Association will "claim all of them" should they win in November. In other words, he argues, these guys share much of the traditional Democratic philosophy (all three favor abortion rights, for example), they just happen to have an "I" after their name instead of a "D." Furthermore, no candidate can get elected in these blue states without doing well among Democratic-leaning voters.

What unites all these candidates, Devine says, is a commitment to "pragmatic politics." In a year in which voters are looking for "honest leaders" who are willing to make "tough decisions," these three are free to run without the constraints of interest group demands and party orthodoxy. All three are gambling that this is the year voters want to be treated as adults who can hear the unvarnished truth instead of sugar-coated pabulum.

But how much "truth" are voters willing to swallow? For his part, Chafee says that the state should think about expanding the scope of sales taxes to balance the budget. In Massachusetts, Cahill called for the state to drop its popular health care plan because of the toll it's taking on the budget.

Meanwhile, all three have to convince voters that even though they've been part of establishment politics for years, they can fix what's broken with the status quo. In an interview with The Hotline, Cutler, a former aide to Sen. Ed Muskie, emphasized that he's not interested in using the legislature as his punching bag. He's not running against the legislature, he says, he's running to make it work better.

If the Tea Party movement is a reaction to the excess of government, these three are reacting to deficiencies in government, namely a deficiency of leadership. They want to prove that government can work -- but only if it breaks out of the traditional Democrat-versus-Republican trap.

Will it work? These blue states have been willing to support Republicans with a pragmatic streak in the past -- think Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and Don Carcieri in Rhode Island. At a time when voters think that both parties are fundamentally broken, if these candidates can't win now, it's hard to see how they can ever win -- anywhere.

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