Who will be the real spoiler in the Maine governor’s race?

Democratic firm Public Policy Polling came out with a survey this week that showed Gov. Paul LePage winning a three-way match-up against independent Eliot Cutler and every Democrat tested.

The same survey showed that when running alone against just a Democrat, LePage was running behind and would face a steep path to re-election.

The howling from Democrats all across Maine began almost immediately.

Ben Grant, the apparently terrified Democratic Party chairman, began spinning right away, telling Portland Press Herald reporter Steve Mistler, “If I were Eliot Cutler right now, I would be thinking twice about running for governor. This poll makes it clear that with a strong Democrat in the race, he can’t win.”

A fine bit of tap dancing for sure, since any Democrat in the field aside from U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud or Chellie Pingree would end up coming in third. That includes the increasingly likely bid by former Gov. John Baldacci, who could only muster 27 percent in such a match-up.

The word “spoiler” has been used repeatedly by Democrats in reference to Cutler. After all, how could Democrats be winning in one poll but in third place in another if Cutler wasn’t stealing their voters?

Alas, this betrays the false narrative that any voters “belong” to any party. If potential Cutler voters were somehow Democrats, supportive of the party and its candidates, why then would they abandon their party in favor of Cutler?

The addition of third, fourth and fifth candidates into a race like this simply offers the voters more choices and more opportunities.

Spoilers don’t exist in politics. People vote for who they want to vote for, and the two-party system only “owns” voters if the people are forced to simply choose between the two by the removal of other options.

The 30 percent or so who say they would support Cutler are clearly not in love with what is offered by the Democratic Party and are only supportive of the Democrats in a two-way race because they view them as slightly better than the Republicans.

That doesn’t make them Democrats, and that certainly doesn’t entitle the Democratic Party to assume those voters belong to them. If they did, Cutler would be sitting at less than 5 percent of the vote.

The same would hold true on the other side of the aisle. If two right-leaning independents entered the race, one being a hard core libertarian of the Ron Paul variety and the other being a more centrist, moderate Republican, the votes that LePage would undoubtedly lose to those voters would not belong to him, or the Republican Party, either.

What partisans continue to fail to understand every single time a race becomes more complicated than simply a Republican vs. a Democrat, is that most voters don’t particularly care about the political trench warfare of the parties. They evaluate candidates based on who they think would do the best job.

Democrats should be less afraid of Cutler, anyway. If rather than view him as a spoiler who is stealing votes they are entitled to, they simply resolved to prove to those voters that they should be voting for their candidate, they might actually have a shot at not once again finishing third in a statewide race.

After all, it isn’t as though the dynamics of a race as it starts are how the race ends up at the end of the day. Cutler himself was hovering in the high single digits for most of the 2010 gubernatorial race, and toward the end was able to convince Democrats who never really liked Libby Mitchell that he was a better choice.

That is the whole reason he is even in a position to run a second time.

Regardless, Cutler is going to run, and the Democrats are going to have to deal with him.

LePage, in either a two-way or a three-way race, is a great deal more formidable than they give him credit for, particularly in an off-year election where Republicans will be more energized than Democrats.

At the end of that day, that is why he is beating both Cutler and any Democrat, and that is why he stands a very good chance of being re-elected.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.