Paul LePage (R) is poised to become the next Governor of Maine, despite the fact most Republicans and most voters overall would prefer someone else. In a crowded Republican primary full of quality candidates, LePage surprised the establishment by winning a plurality with just over a third of the votes. As a tea party favorite, his supporters were committed and enthused, and with the rest of the GOP field splitting the vote, he came out on top.
Now he is running against a Democrat Libby Mitchell, and three independents. One, Elliot Cutler, is splitting the vote with Mitchell. A plurality is all it takes to win, and in those terms LePage is costing into election day with a large lead. Democrats had hoped that independent Shawn Moody would siphon away votes from LePage, especially after scandals emerged around accusation of tax evasion and some well publicized temper tantrums from a candidate used to running a business and not being questioned and pressured. Unlike Cutler, Moody lacks money and thus was buried beneath the ads and noise of the campaign.
Earlier it appeared Cutler wasn’t gaining traction. Mitchell got close to LePage in the polls, and Cutler stayed at around 10%. But he has been spending lots of money, and a lot of Mainers who think Mitchell is too liberal and LePage too conservative have rallied to Cutler. Yet in a three person race, it’s hard to know what will happen.
For some this is proof that we need a run off system — the way the current ballot is structured someone can get elected that a large majority of the people don’t want in office. In one recent poll Le Page got 37% and his opponents 53% — but LePage would win. But those are the rules of the game, and if either Cutler or Mitchell had generated the core support LePage has achieved, they’d be doing much better. Here are the scenarios:
1. A Cutler win is unlikely, but possible. Although he’s improved in the polls, there is a lot of early voting, and that is likely benefiting Mitchell. At first I was suspicious of his leap in a couple of recent polls, but today two more corroborated earlier polls, one showing Cutler within 6 of LePage (37-31, with Mitchell at 22). Maine does have a reputation of supporting independents, and Cutler’s clearly got the wind at his back.
2. A Mitchell win remains possible, but unlikely. Until Cutler’s rise in the polls I thought that a mixture of LePage’s mistakes and Mitchell’s organization would eek out a narrow victory for her. However, she has not run a very effective campaign, while Cutler has saturated the air waves and has ads appear on everything from “Facebook” to the Maine website “Pine Tree Politics.” Mitchell hasn’t inspired the kind of hard core support that both LePage and Cutler have generated.
So going into the final weekend the race has become wild. LePage still seems likely to win; he’s staked out about 40% of the vote, leaving Cutler and Mitchell to fight for the other 60%. Yet he is within striking distance of either challenger. Strategic voters who want “anyone but LePage” have a dilemma. Do they vote for Mitchell, in second place most of the race and with the unions and the better organization on her side? Or do they vote for Cutler, who seems to be doing better in the polls and has a devoted core group of supporters alongside a well funded campaign? My hunch is that Cutler’s riding the wave now and Mitchell blew her chance. Yet just two weeks ago it seemed Cutler hadn’t caught on, and Mitchell was surging.
So…all one can do is wait and see. The Republicans clearly hope that Cutler and Mitchell split the vote evenly, allowing them to win both the GOP primary and the general election on the backs of about 35% of the electorate. What a strange year this is turning out to be!