There's been a quiet revolution brewing in Maine politics for more than 50 years that is about to boil over onto the national stage. Our election of two independent governors was one thing. That was largely a Maine story.
But if we send an independent to the U.S. Senate and particularly if that new Senate is as closely divided as many national analysts now believe, what is happening in Maine is about to become a national topic of discussion.
That couldn't happen at a worse time for Congress, already reeling from historic low voter approval ratings for making compromise a dirty word while members spend most of their time and all of their money denouncing each other as crooks, liars, cowards and idiots. With public calls for change becoming louder with each passing year, the response from both parties until now has been simple: "elect us and throw them out."
Maine's experience offers a third way: until the parties change, go around them. Without intending it, we've become an important laboratory in the American experiment in democracy.
Taking a different path isn't new for Maine, of course. In recent decades we've been a rural blue state that rallies around long-shot presidential candidates, sends moderates to Congress and seems to produce a disproportionate number of national leaders. But sending an articulate independent to Washington with a message of change moves us into the thick of a new national conversation.
How did this happen? Let's cue the history.
• The one-party state -- For 100 years after the civil war Maine was a solid Republican state, when Republicans included progressives and moderates like Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, who promoted the power of the federal government over state's rights on slavery and favored regulating big business and monopolies and creating national parks.
• Becoming a two-party state -- In 1955 Democrat Ed Muskie, by sheer force of personality, built the foundations of the modern Democratic party in Maine and along the way shocked many by getting himself elected governor.
• Eliminating the Big Box -- In 1972 parties began to lose power with the elimination of the "big box" ballot, which allowed voters with one 'X' to vote for an entire partisan slate. The big box represented the heyday of party loyalty and its elimination caused voters, for the first time, to take a hard look at individuals rather than parties.
• Becoming a three party state -- In 1974 voters took the next step by electing independent James Longley as governor. Longley was all fire and brimstone about spending and his election was a clear protest vote by Mainers frustrated with a government that was growing faster than their own paychecks. It paved the way for a string of referendums on taxes and spending and even today's tea party. Longley served just one term, but his election shattered the taboo on voting outside the parties.
• The post-party candidate -- In 1994 voters elected another independent. Angus King wasn't so much about anger against government as he was a common-sense moderate running against the parties themselves. He was first to represent a widening gulf between the parties, a gap that was becoming the home of moderates on social issues who were increasingly conservative on fiscal issues. His two terms in office, including a landslide re-election, took the idea of electing independents from protest to mainstream.
• Vote splitting and the new math -- Eliot Cutler's near-miss in the 2010 race for governor highlighted how shrinking parties were boiling down to their core left and right bases, which enabled him to seize the middle as a fiscal and social moderate. That election effectively ended the simplicity of a two-party choice and forced new calculations for future three-way or multiparty races.
Meanwhile, the number of unenrolled voters has steadily increased over these years to about 40 percent. But if you include disaffected moderates from both parties who haven't yet changed their registration but are increasingly comfortable with voting for an independent, the numbers become much larger, making independents both a new majority and a major force in Maine politics today.
If Maine's inspiration and America's frustration should find a way to combine, there are only two outcomes to this story. One is the emergence of a national third party built around common sense. The other, more likely, is the reinvention of one or both of the existing parties into a larger and more inclusive party that speaks to the common sense middle. Either way, Maine is about to be on the national map in an entirely new way.
Alan Caron is a lifelong Mainer, a disgruntled Democrat and an author of Reinventing Maine Government. He served on Governor LePage's transition team and supports Angus King for Senate. He can be reached at: