On August 24th – in the midst of my vacation in Maine – something happened. A new candidate filed paperwork to run for Governor of Maine. Why this is noteworthy? We finally have our first Independent candidate worth discussing. This candidate, is Eliot Cutler.
Up until now, the batch of Independents running for Governor has looked like a disheveled, rag tag bunch of non-players who were deluding themselves into thinking they would pull any significant votes or receive any real attention – or in the case of Independent candidates like Alex Hammer, even be taken seriously at all.
But Cutler is different – he is actually a serious candidate, with real experience, and a background that demands he be taken seriously.
Cutler is a former staffer of a Maine legend – Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, helping craft some landmark legislation, such as the Clean Air Act. He then worked at the White House Office of Management and Budget under Carter, as well as serving as an energy expert for the President for three years. He has also worked on multiple presidential campaigns. In short, he has political experience, and a base of support that can actually build an electoral organization in the state.
None of this means he will win, or even that he will come close – it is far too early to know that. But one thing we do know is that his entry into the race provides for a new variable that will at a bare minimum effect the general election.
Cutler’s history in Democratic politics under Muskie and Carter, as well as his role in environmental and energy policy should present a very real threat to the eventual Democratic nominee. With a Green in the race sucking off 5% of the vote from a left of center electorate, and Cutler siphoning off from a center to center-left perspective, the eventual Democratic candidate will be fighting for a smaller share of the pie, while the Republican candidate (at least at this point) will have the center-right all to himself.
Granted, politics is a lot more complicated than that. In 1994, there was a well known Democrat, a center-left Independent in the race, a Green candidate pulling 6% of the vote – and the Republican candidate (Susan Collins) came in a distant third. Still, this is not 1994, and if I were a Republican candidate for Governor, Cutler’s presence would make me extremely happy.
Can Cutler build a coalition to win statewide like King did? We will see. Eliot Cutler is not Angus King, and this is not 1994 – so personally I am skeptical. But we will get a much clearer picture of what Cutler will do to this race as time goes by.
One thing is for sure, however. He is indeed a game changer. What he changes the game into, remains to be seen.