– Since Maine became a state in 1820, we’ve elected 61 governors. The first 55 all seem to have been elected with the support of at least 50 percent of the voters of Maine. But the last six tell a different story.
While much has been made of Paul LePage’s 38 percent victory in 2010, we haven’t installed a new governor with the support of a majority of voters since 1966, when Ken Curtis won with 53 percent.
In what might be a remarkable coincidence, but probably isn’t, during that same period we’ve been stuck in economic doldrums, with population growing faster than jobs. Meanwhile, the quality of our new jobs has declined, we’ve become an older state, the middle class has shrunk and we’ve continued to endure stubborn poverty throughout the state.
In 1974, Maine’s elections for governor underwent a seismic change when James Longley, an independent, shocked the state’s political establishment by overtaking George Mtichell and James Erwin to win the Blaine House with 39 percent of the vote.
“Just a fluke,” the parties said, hopefully. “We’re still a two-party state.” When it comes to the governor’s race, time has proved otherwise. Longley’s election introduced the then-radical idea that you didn’t have to be picked by one of the two parties to be the favorite of the voters.
That opened the way for another independent victory 20 years later, when Angus King bested Democrat Joe Brennan and Republican Susan Collins. Unlike Longley, King held the office for eight years and used it well, further advancing the idea that an independent could be a viable option.
Now, of course, we seem to have three to five independents in every gubernatorial race.
In the last one, Eliot Cutler lost to LePage by less than 2 percent. Talking heads still amuse themselves with arguments over whether Cutler or the Democrat was the “spoiler” in that race, rarely acknowledging the fact that another independent, Shawn Moody, took what became a crucial 5 percent of the vote.
One of the most striking problems of this new era in Maine politics is that as races for governor have become more crowded, it has taken fewer and fewer votes to win, meaning that a hard core of ideological supporters, rather than broad public support, has been sufficient for victory. Now, virtually all the strategies for becoming governor start with how to get 38 percent of the vote, rather than a majority.
In 10 to 15 years, if this trend continues, we could see even more crowded fields of marginal candidates, striving to win with 15 percent or 20 percent of the vote. If that happens, Maine’s government is going to begin to look suspiciously like the tragicomedy version in Italy.
During this last 40 years, we’ve endured not only minority governors but also minority visions and plans for the future that have ranged from increasing investments in government and education to downsizing government as a whole. Each was brought by a governor who won with minority support, and each was either rejected or thwarted by the strange bedfellows of the opposition majority.
In a time when Maine is competing for jobs against highly organized and disciplined states and countries around the world, we’ve had a team on the field that changes pitchers every inning, has infielders shuffling the dirt and barking at each other, and outfielders wrestling while balls fly over their heads.
Is there some relationship between a string of governors with narrow bases of support, a flat-line economy and the lack of consensus on how to grow a more vibrant economy? You bet.
When someone can become governor by winning with a third of the vote, there isn’t the least incentive to find common-ground solutions to big problems like the economy. In fact, as we can see vividly with Gov. LePage, there’s every incentive to activate your narrow base by attacking everyone else.
I tend to think we can’t really move Maine’s economy forward until we have a governor, a vision and a plan that enjoys broad public support. To get there, we’ll need to take a hard look at how to modernize our elections before the damage gets worse, and to ensure every new governor has the support of at least 51 percent of the voters.
Our current electoral system was built for two-party elections, not multi-party ones. In Maine, at least, those days are gone, and no amount of bemoaning multi-candidate elections will bring them back. Next week, I’ll suggest some of the ways that we can update our elections.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy, and a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be contacted at: