Thursday, December 12, 2013
The 2014 gubernatorial election will be a tipping point for Maine Democrats.
The party faces a significant challenge recruiting and advancing a competitive statewide candidate and can ill afford to nominate another protector of the status quo. The party needs to do something different, or else it risks another significant electoral defeat and the prospect of a prolonged period of third-tier, back-bench status.
Democrats' greatest threat is not the Republicans but the rise of well-funded, center-left independents who attract a formidable voter coalition of moderate Democrats, centrist independents and a smaller group of moderate Republicans. That scenario typically results in the relegation of Democratic candidates to third-tier, also-ran status.
But it also begs the question, why are Maine Democrats breaking party ranks so easily? And why aren't Maine's prominent independents -- who are actually former Democrats -- choosing to run as Democrats?
The answers to both questions are two sides of the same coin.
Democratic primary voters (just as their Republican counterparts, in fairness) are a small, ideological and largely homogeneous voting bloc, imposing purity tests that result in nominees who neither represent the broad swath of Maine's center-left voters nor enable them to embrace bold reforms.
In that environment, Angus King and Eliot Cutler probably couldn't win in a Democratic primary or, in order to win, would be forced to tailor their positions to a much narrower electorate. Why would they bother when the plurality of Maine voters are neither ideologically there nor even registered partisans?
The primary's narrowness and constriction increasingly produce Democrats who are the protectors of orthodoxy and defenders of past successes rather than the champions of future-looking, big ideas.
What is the party's pro-growth reform agenda for education, work force development, innovation, entrepreneurship, and job creation? You'd be hard pressed to get well articulated or even similar responses from party leaders.
We know Democrats don't support school choice and charter schools, for example, but what is their plan for improving education? Crickets.
In the Democrats' absence, Republicans have filled the idea gap and assumed the mantle of innovation.
Democrats scratch their head at the buoyant favorability ratings of Gov. Paul LePage. But voters give him credit, despite his penchant for controversy, for trying things -- anything -- that shake up the traditional bureaucracies and institutions of government.
If Democrats want to defuse the independent threat, close the idea gap and improve their prospects for 2014, I humbly suggest the following:
• Nominate a candidate who is not a politician and not beholden to traditional partisan interests. It may take a Democrat willing to blow up the party to fully revive it. Democrats should embrace that boldness.
• Recruit someone from private industry who can authoritatively discuss the challenges of creating jobs, growing a business, paying taxes, providing health care, recruiting qualified workers and navigating government bureaucracies. Democrats need a candidate who can authentically address these issues and reconnect the party with voters up and down the income strata. Silver spoons need not apply.
• Throw sharp political elbows from inside the party to clear the field. This is often unpleasant work, but party leaders must be willing to take a stand and unite behind a candidate early and unequivocally, preventing others from taking the field.
• Abandon the purity tests and genuflection to interest groups, advancing a candidate who Democrats can agree with most of the time, rather than allowing the ideologically pure candidate to trump the actually electable one.
• Reclaim the Democratic fundraisers who bankrolled Cutler and now King. The list of Democratic money men and women in Maine is short. If these rainmakers continue to support independents, Democrats simply won't be able to compete.
• Articulate a reform agenda that publicly and unequivocally embraces change and makes a clear case for growth, even -- or especially -- if it breaks with traditional party dogmas.
• Consider supporting an open primary that allows independents to participate. It's not a cure-all, but it will open up the process up to a greater diversity of voices and allow candidates to emerge who might otherwise run as independents or choose not to participate at all.
None of this is to suggest that Democrats should abandon any of their traditional values -- fairness, equality, an economy that grows the middle class, strong public education, a clean environment, affordable health care and effective, efficient government.
Instead, this is an opportunity for Democrats to embrace new leadership, welcome new ideas and boldly advance these values in order to compete and win in 2014.Republicans have filled the idea gap and assumed the mantle of innovation.
Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Sen. John Kerry and U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office for VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.