April 9, 2012

Independent voters shape Maine political scene

Unattached voters give Maine its reputation for being willing to elect leaders from either or neither party.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Voters in much of the country have been leaving the Democratic and Republican parties and joining the ranks of the unenrolled and independent.

Not here, however.

Maine voters have had a deep independent streak for decades. Other states may simply be catching up, experts say.

An analysis of voter registration patterns shows just why Maine has earned its reputation as a moderate stronghold willing to elect leaders from either party, and sometimes from neither party. The state's large bloc of unattached voters – a group with more members than both major parties – will once again be a key factor this fall, when Maine fills an open and potentially pivotal seat in the U.S. Senate.

It also is one reason that an independent – former Gov. Angus King – is seen as the candidate to beat. Both Republicans and Democrats already are running against King two months before the June 12 primary to choose their parties' nominees.

This simply doesn't happen elsewhere. And it's no accident.

"People (in Maine) are used to voting for somebody other than the Democrat or Republican, which doesn't happen in other states," said L. Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College.

Maine has elected two independent governors in the past 40 years – Jim Longley and King – and nearly elected a third in 2010 – Eliot Cutler. Only a handful of states have ever elected even one.

"An independent gets elevated now and then (around the country), but in Maine it happens often enough that it stands out," said Morris Fiorina, a Stanford University professor of political science.

Maine also routinely splits its votes. The state now has a Republican governor, two Democratic members of Congress and two Republican U.S. senators.

Maine's U.S. senators – Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – happen to be among the most likely to defy party leaders and vote across partisan lines. Snowe has said that the hyperpartisan atmosphere in the Senate is the reason she decided not to seek a fourth term.

John McDonald, an author and storyteller, says political independence has been a Maine trademark at least since the days of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine.

Smith showed her Yankee independent streak in 1950 when she rose on the Senate floor to criticize the anti-communism campaign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis. Mainers approved. Smith would serve another 23 years in the Senate after that.

Maine voters surprised even themselves, however, when they elected Longley as an independent governor in 1974. Everyone expected the winner to be Democrat George Mitchell, who "was probably half moved in" to the Blaine House, McDonald jokes.

The election of a governor with no party was big national news at the time, McDonald recalls. It's since become expected of Maine voters.

"Even those who belong to a party don't feel like they're locked in," McDonald said. "Nobody likes to be taken for granted, and least of all Maine people."

Longley's election started a lasting trend in gubernatorial races.

"In virtually every election since that time, we've had a strong independent candidate," Maisel said. The sole exception is the 1982 race, he said.

Maine's political nature doesn't mean independent candidates have a built-in advantage over other candidates. They don't have a party campaign structure, for example, which is why successful independent candidates also tend to be independently wealthy. And Maine's unenrolled voters are just as likely to support partisan candidates, especially those with moderate views.

"To win election in Maine, at least in a two-person race, you've got to appeal to those voters in the middle," said Mark Brewer, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. "(Maine) is one of those purple states where both parties have a chance to win an election statewide."

(Continued on page 2)

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