PORTLAND – A week after his close second-place finish in the gubernatorial race, Eliot Cutler was tight-lipped about his political future but did not rule out another run for elected office.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” the independent candidate said. “I’m going to stay active politically.”
Cutler met with the editorial board of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram last week for an election post-mortem. Among the things he would have changed if he could: persuade the media to pay less attention to the “horse race” and polling; end early absentee voting; persuade former Gov. Angus King to make his endorsement earlier.
Cutler said he believes the two major parties are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Social networks such as Facebook allow people of similar political persuasions to come together without the major parties. At the same time, the role of special interests within the parties has grown disproportionately large — the parties no longer contain the wide spectrum of views that they did when he was an aide to Democratic Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, Cutler said.
“The parties are no longer mediating differences among people,” he said.
Cutler said the parties fail to serve most of their followers, but they benefit from election laws that give them an advantage over independent candidates such as himself.
Absentee voting far in advance of Election Day — a rapidly growing trend — is damaging the political process, Cutler said. In Maine, voters can request absentee ballots three months before an election and are supposed to receive them at least 30 days before the election.
Of the approximately 563,000 votes cast in the gubernatorial election, about 140,000 were absentee ballots, based on preliminary, unofficial returns and an estimate by the Secretary of State’s Office.
Because many voters don’t make up their minds until late in an election season, early voting deprives the body politic of an informed electorate, Cutler said. He said the system enforces the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats because they are able to corral voters early. He also believes that there is value to having the citizenry share the experience of going to the polls on Election Day.
Republican Gov.-elect Paul LePage won with 38 percent of the vote, while Cutler got 37 percent — a difference of fewer than 10,000 votes. Democrat Libby Mitchell came in third with 19 percent.
Which candidate got the most absentee votes isn’t known, but Cutler said he has heard anecdotally from early voters who regretted not having voted for him.
Absentee voting likely did hurt Cutler because many on the left were voting strategically to keep LePage out of office, said Brian Duff, a political scientist at the University of New England. Many absentee votes had already been cast by the time undecideds swept toward Cutler toward the end of the campaign, he said.
“If what you’re interested in is the democratic ideal of the fully informed voter, there are a number of things you can do to promote that. Outlawing absentee voting I’d put 15th or 16th on that list,” Duff said. As an example, he cited an English parliamentary election that is being revoted because the winner lied about an opponent in a TV ad. “That’s a real reform.”
The Maine Clean Election Act was another area of election law that Cutler said favored major-party candidates.
Under the law, the money spent by party-based groups on things like advertisements in support of a candidate does not count as a campaign contribution unless the group and the campaign are coordinating efforts. This kind of spending is considered a First Amendment right, and there are no limits on how much the outside groups can spend.
But Cutler said this allows a Clean Election candidate such as Mitchell to obtain public financing and still benefit from the money spent by outside groups. He said it’s fiction that campaigns and outside groups are not coordinating their efforts.
Colby College political scientist L. Sandy Maisel disagreed with Cutler’s views on the relevance of political parties.
“Parties have been threatened as organizations through their history. One of the things political scientists know is that they are incredibly adept at finding new roles,” said Maisel, who is a Democratic activist and a former congressional candidate.
Parties still give cues to voters, he said. Only about 10 percent of voters neither belong to a party nor lean toward one over the others, he said.
University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer said Cutler’s strong showing as an independent may indicate weakness in the parties, but other dynamics also characterized the election. A divided Democratic Party in the primary and the Republicans’ nomination of the conservative LePage benefited Cutler, he said.
Cutler campaigned well, performed well in debates and refrained from negative advertising, Brewer said. His close finish in the election and his name recognition would help him if he runs for office again, he said.
“What I would not say is he’s one and done,” Brewer said.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: