The decision of state Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford to enter the 1st District Congressional race against incumbent Chellie Pingree could make an already-fascinating election cycle in Maine even more so.

The 1st District is solidly Democratic, so even in a neutral election cycle, the incumbent should be a lock for re-election, and if the seat were open the Democrats shouldn’t have any trouble holding on to it. The seat hasn’t switched parties since 1994, and the best any Republican has done since then was Charlie Summers in 2008 with 45 percent. In the 1st district, independent candidates haven’t garnered more than 10 percent of the vote recently.

Contrary to popular belief, though, such candidates aren’t usually moderates.

More often than not, they’re folks who consider themselves too conservative or too liberal to feel at home even in America’s big-tent political parties. They rarely have much experience in government, and that’s usually not for lack of trying. When they run for office, they don’t normally have much of an organization, and don’t end up having an impact on the race at all. This is even true in Maine: Even though we’ve elected more independents than most states, that still doesn’t make for much of a track record of success.

Grohman, however, may prove to be the exception to the rule, like the successful Angus King or the unsuccessful (but certainly impactful) Eliot Cutler.

For one, he’s known as a pragmatic centrist who’s worked well with his Republican colleagues and Gov. LePage on a number of issues. He worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle in his push to expand Medicaid, co-sponsoring a measure with Republican Senator Tom Saviello to expand it under a block grant. He was also the only Democrat (back when he still was one) willing to sign up to co-sponsor a welfare reform proposal sponsored by LePage, going against his own party leadership to do so.

Pingree hasn’t faced an opponent quite like Grohman since she first ran for Congress 10 years ago, when she was challenged for the nomination by newcomer Adam Cote, who is now running for governor.

To the surprise of many, the more-moderate Cote rocketed into second place in the Democratic primary, easily surpassing more well-known (and more liberal) candidates like Michael Brennan and Ethan Strimling. Pingree still easily defeated him, but she went on to win the general election by less than 10 points. All of that suggests that there are plenty of voters in the first district willing to vote for a more moderate candidate – even amongst Democrats.

If the people’s veto of the bill that delayed ranked-choice voting passes in June, it may well improve Grohman’s chances. Then, barring a legal challenge, the system will be in place in November, and it could be easier for many voters to cast their ballots for Grohman. Though it’s a largely specious one, a consistent argument deployed against independents is that they’re just spoilers who are somehow stealing votes from the major-party candidates. In reality, though, it’s just as likely that this argument for blind party loyalty has unfairly helped defeat worthy independents.

It will be an uphill climb for Grohman, though. It’s still a big leap to switch from running for the Maine House to the U.S. House. All of the work required, from collecting signatures to raising money to meeting voters, increases exponentially. Defeating an incumbent is especially difficult in congressional races, and Maine is no exception in that regard – no member of Maine’s congressional delegation has lost re-election in over two decades.

If ranked-choice voting is in place and if Grohman can pull together a well-run political operation, he has the potential to make this race much more interesting than anyone expected, and Pingree’s most challenging re-election in years. The worst any Republican candidate has done in the first district recently has been 30 percent, so if Grohman can get his name and his ideas out there he has a shot, at least, at denying Pingree an outright majority.

At any rate, it’s always good to see a serious, substantive independent candidate for a major office in Maine. Too often, voters feel trapped between two bad choices with the two major parties. If having a third-party or independent candidate on the ballot lets voters choose the best candidate, rather than the tolerable one, that’s good for democracy.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel