On Election Night 2010, no one knew for sure who’d won the contest to be Maine’s next governor, but everyone knew who had lost.
Early in the evening, while returns were still coming in, Senate President Libby Mitchell, the Democratic nominee, thanked her supporters and graciously conceded the race, having known for some time that she was headed to finish a distant third place.
But what if she had made her speech two weeks sooner?
What if, in mid-October, she’d called a press conference and said: “This has been a long and hard-fought campaign, but it is obvious that I will not be able to win this race and be your governor. As disappointing as that is for me personally, it does not make me any less concerned about the future of our state. There is still a clear choice for voters between the two front-runners, and I encourage all my supporters to vote for Eliot Cutler.
“This is not because I agree with Mr. Cutler on all the issues. I do not. But the prospect of the state I love under the narrow-minded and mean-spirited leadership of Paul LePage makes me cast my differences aside and put the state’s future ahead of party.”
Would it have made a difference? Probably. Cutler lost to LePage by about 10,000 votes, less than 2 percent of the votes cast. Mitchell drew 108,000 votes, or 19 percent. Could she have moved 10,000 votes? Almost certainly.
Which brings us to this year’s race for the U.S. Senate. It’s another three-way with the Democrat running third.
Although independent Angus King appears to have things under control, showing no worse than an 8 percent lead in one poll and comfortably in double digits in the rest, the race appears to be tightening.
The way things stand now, Republican Charlie Summers has claim to roughly a third of the electorate. Democrat Cynthia Dill looks to be doing a few points better than Libby Mitchell, but still a distant third.
Dill has virtually no chance to be Maine’s next senator, but she does have a chance to make history. If sometime between now and Nov. 6 she throws her support to King, she would take a major step toward keeping the Republicans from taking over the U.S. Senate, and she would write the rules for what Maine voters expect from grown-up candidates in three-way races. This precedent could come back and help a Democrat in the next three-way race.
It would be a wild, risky, out-of-the-box move. But the right one.
The Real Clear Politics poll average shows that if the election were held today, the Democrats would have 48 senators, Republicans 44 with eight races listed as tossups.
That counts Maine in the Democratic column, showing that King’s coy answer about which party he would caucus with is not fooling anyone. (The pro-gay-marriage, anti-global-warming, Obamacare-backing, re-elect-the-president Republican caucus looks a little thin these days.)
The only way that Summers could win the race would be if Dill catches fire and eats into King’s lead. That’s why the Republican Party has spent $359,000 so far on advertising on Dill’s behalf, saying, truthfully, that she’s the real progressive in the race. But Maine Democrats who vote for Dill should do so knowing that it’s just what the Republicans want most. An early exit would be what they are most afraid of.
Then there is the precedent an early concession would set for future Maine elections. We now have a two-party system on which we impose three-way math. It’s the only way a candidate with deep but limited appeal (like Gov. LePage) can win. If Dill were to refuse to play that game, it would make life difficult for a future spoiler who insists on staying in.
There are three likely outcomes of this race, but only one that would lift Dill’s stature.
• One is that the polls are right, King wins easily and Dill and her party are irrelevant.
• Two is that Summers wins thanks to the negative ads Republican PACs ran against King and the positive ads they ran for Dill. It would be a victory for cynics and a playbook for future campaigns looking to distort the results of three-way races.
• The third would be for Dill to throw her support to King despite real policy differences between them, because, based on Democratic Party values, he causes the least harm to the state and the nation.
In that scenario, she walks away from the race personally disappointed but with her head held high. Like Libby Mitchell should have done.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org