The recent and surprising entry of State Treasurer Terry Hayes into the 2018 gubernatorial race brought with it something totally unsurprising: the return of Eliot Cutler to Maine politics.

Hayes, after all, loyally supported his campaign, so it was to be expected that he would offer her his support in return (indeed, he may have helped convince her to run). The real shock, though, was that Cutler wasn’t just showing up to boost Hayes’ campaign. He also announced that he was supporting an effort to recruit independent legislative candidates across the state, organized in the form of a political action committee called Maine Independents.

Though he’s likely to be the most well-known person involved with the PAC, Cutler is not the sole force behind it. A number of his former staffers are providing the organizational muscle for the group, which might have a greater chance of success if ranked-choice voting is actually implemented in Maine. Still, even with that advantage – if it holds up in court – they face a number of challenges and questions as they get underway.

The first and foremost is organization. The two major parties are extremely well organized, with committees in all 16 of Maine’s counties and in hundreds of municipalities across the state. No matter how much money they spend, any effort to recruit independent legislative candidates will not be able to match the parties organizationally. So, they’ll have to pick and choose a more limited number districts in both the Maine House and the Maine Senate in which to recruit candidates.

This might not sound like a big disadvantage – after all, the parties do the same thing – but it could end up being one. With the major parties, if a candidate falls flat or ends up being better than expected, they can shift resources on the fly to adapt to changing circumstances. When you’ve got candidates in nearly every district, you have that luxury; with a smaller slate of candidates that flexibility just might not be there.

Another problem for this PAC will be ideology. Although the two are often equated, “independent” voters (or, more accurately, voters who are not enrolled in a party) aren’t necessarily centrist – and neither are independent candidates. Some people don’t enroll in a party, or run for office under its banner, because they’re too conservative for the Republican Party or too liberal for the Democrats, not because they’re moderate. Will Cutler’s group support people like that, if they’re running in a district where they can win, or are they interested only in moderates? Are there any issues that are red lines for them, or are they willing to adapt to support the best candidates in each seat?

The major parties, for all their flaws, are fairly adaptable – at least, they are when they’re being successful. In swing areas they’ll back moderates, while finding more traditional liberals or conservatives in less-contested areas. To many people, this is more a bug than a feature, but it’s what allows them to compete all over the state and the country.

Finally, as with all efforts in politics, money will be an issue for this group. In order to be effective and get their candidates elected, they’ll have to raise a ton of it, just like the major parties. Cutler has done fairly well raising money for his gubernatorial efforts, but hasn’t shown much ability to transfer those skills to others. There may be a whole pool of donors out there chomping at the bit to take a bite out of the far left and the far right, but so far they’ve been content donating to the major parties.

Despite all of this, if the Maine Independents group ends is successful, it could be transformative to Maine politics. If they managed to get 10 to 15 House members and around five senators elected, they could have a great deal of sway in Augusta, on bills and leadership alike.

In the current legislative session, those numbers would have been more than enough to determine the balance of power. Independents would be able to push the two parties into a power-sharing arrangement, forming a kind of coalition government. Maine has come close before – the state Senate was tied after the 1998 election, resulting in Mike Michaud and Rick Bennett sharing the Senate presidency by each taking the gavel in one year of the biennium – but we haven’t quite had a formal coalition here, as other states have.

Whether they’re ultimately successful or not, having more independents running gives voters more choices beyond the typical two parties, and that’s certainly a good thing for everyone.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

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