Supporters of Governor Paul Le Page are livid. They are mad at Angus King. They have no reason to be, except that they fear their candidate will have a harder path to victory. That’s because of the weird twists and turns of Maine’s gubernatorial contest.
Senator Angus King is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. King also served two terms as an independent Governor in Maine. King, who has endorsed Democrat Emily Cain for the second district seat, earlier endorsed independent candidate Elliot Cutler for governor. He’s also endorsed independent Larry Pressler in South Dakota.
Le Page supporters know that in a two way race between their man and Democratic candidate Mike Michaud, Le Page has no chance. He is not the typical Maine Republican, he’s a tea party Republican who has made his mark by refusing federal funds to expand medicare, hurting both Maine citizens and hospitals who need the money. Other Republicans, like Ohio Governor John Kaisich, praise medicare expansion – and have chosen to benefit from it. That and his embarrassing quotes, bullying and temper tantrums make Le Page an unpopular governor.
Yet he could win the election if the opposition to Le Page splits their vote between Elliot Cutler and Mike Michaud. The GOP has been pouring money into support for Cutler for the very purpose of undermining Michaud. The anger against King comes because he changed his endorsement from Cutler to Michaud.
Supposedly King was being a “traitor” by changing sides, or showing “no principle.” That is absurd. King supported Cutler as an independent. But in a press conference yesterday Cutler admitted he was a long shot, and said voters should vote their conscience. King, realizing that he did not want to see a second Le Page term, came out and changed his endorsement to Mike Michaud – following his conscience, as Cutler advised.
That is a principled, rational response to the conditions in this election. King may have even talked with Cutler about it. So why the fury against King? It’s simply an emotional reaction to the sudden realization that the anti-Le Page vote may not be as divided as Le Page supporters hoped. King’s change is symbolic of the possibility that many Cutler supporters will switch to Michaud, thereby making it much less likely Le Page will win. The anger isn’t really with King, it’s with the possibility Michaud will be Maine’s next governor.
The dynamics of the three way race remain uncertain. In 2010 Le Page barely bested Cutler, with each getting about 39%. The Democrat Libby Mitchell was back with 22%. Cutler almost won – hence he tried again. Yet Michaud, a popular Congressman, is a much stronger candidate than Mitchell, and Cutler was never able to seriously challenge the two leaders. The polls show a very tight race at the top – the Huffpost pollster has the race as 50-50, with Le Page and Michaud both averaging 40% in the polls. Cutler has remained well below 20%, down to 7% in one poll.
It says something profound when one side thinks it can only win if it divides the opposition – Le Page supporters implicitly admit their candidate would not win a two person race. Yet this also shows a weakness of a plurality vote; a third candidate messes up the works, creating unintended consequences – Le Page’s 2010 victory is an example of that.
The real solution is to ditch the plurality vote and create a run off election of the two top candidates if no one reaches 50%. They do that in other states, we should do that in Maine. The odds are good that this move away from Cutler will help Michaud win – but any three way race is hard to predict. Allowing a run off election would help independents because people could truly vote their conscience in the first round, and not need to worry about strategic voting. Hopefully Maine will move in that direction in the next legislative session.