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Spoiler Alert — Will History Repeat Itself In Maine's Governor Race?

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No matter how this year’s gubernatorial election ends, third-party candidate and State Treasurer Terry Hayes isn’t afraid of the outcome. Every election has consequences, the Independent potential spoiler says, but if Republican Shawn Moody wins, life will go on.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the world as we know it,” said Hayes during a phone interview with the Phoenix Monday. “There is talk of Moody as if he has three heads and horns.”

Hayes isn’t buying the argument that her presence on the ballot — along with fellow Independent Alan Caron — would spoil the chances of a Democrat finally taking back the Blaine House. Despite it having literally happened in 2014, Hayes’ campaign manager Kyle Bailey called the spoiler issue a “partisan myth that’s convenient for both sides.”

Hayes told us that she doesn’t believe Mills would win if she dropped out, and that there’s “a bit of arrogance” to the assumption that her supporters would automatically flock to Mills if she did.

“Individuals have been pressuring me to drop out of the race,” said Hayes. “I don’t think anyone who qualifies for the ballot should be bullied off the ballot.”

Hayes is one of the two Independent candidates Mainers will vote for governor on Nov. 6, the other being Caron, a development advocate and center-liberal moderate. Despite polling less than 10 percent in the latest polls, Hayes has vowed to stay in the race, and it looks like Caron will come close.

Caron too has urged Hayes to drop out of the race in mid-October — and pledged to do the same — if it was clear that they can’t win, writing in a Portland Press Herald letter back in March that “there’s too much at stake in this election for anything less.” He publicly urged Eliot Cutler to do the same in 2014.

But Hayes doesn’t agree with Caron that there’s too much at stake in this election, and said that voting out of fear is the wrong move. She noted that there hasn’t been a two-candidate race for governor in Maine in over 40 years, and it’s not her responsibility to help the Dems win.

“You’re telling me the Democrats can’t nominate a candidate who can win a multi-candidate race?” she said. “This is not my problem to solve.”

We reached out to Caron last week asking if he would honor his pledge, but he declined to say. When pressed via email if he’d drop out of the race, considering it’s mid-October, Caron said “I think I’ve said everything I can about this issue in my March op-ed.”

For Dems, spoilers are a real concern

A Change Research poll of 800 likely voters conducted in October has Mills at 52 percent and Moody at 44 percent — the most recent data from a major polling site.

That poll didn’t include Hayes and Caron, but a poll on the race, conducted August 2-6 by Suffolk University, puts Hayes at 4 percent, Caron at 2.6 percent, with the two front runners Republican Shawn Moody and Democrat Janet Mills at 39 percent and 38.8 percent respectively.

Because the race is so close and ranked-choice voting won’t be used in the general election (constitutional conflicts mandate that the governor’s race be decided by a simply plurality instead of a majority), Democrats are convinced that a vote for Caron or Hayes is essentially a vote for Moody.

The fear is that this year’s gubernatorial election will end the way 2014’s did, when Independent Eliot Cutler earned 8 percent of the votes, enough of a split to win Paul LePage a second term with 48.2 percent compared to Democratic candidate Mike Michaud's 43.3 percent.

Phil Bartlett, the chair of the Maine Democratic Party, has told the press that he considers this to be a “two-person race,” and last month the Bangor Daily News published an internal email from Lincoln County Democratic Chair Chris Johnson which showed concern over the spoiler issue. In the email, Johnson urged supporters to try and convince Hayes to drop out of the race and “ask her what she’s going to do to prevent a disastrous outcome for the Maine people.”

At the time, Hayes shrugged off those concerns. “I think people who came with that message left more frustrated than I did,” she said.

Many voters, including Republicans, don’t anticipate a Moody governorship to function that much differently than the LePage administration (which has donated, endorsed, and helped staff the Moody campaign). Naturally, Democrats and progressives are distraught at the prospect of eight more years of LePage-style leadership, which they believe has left behind a legacy of obstructionism, inaction against climate change, nasty rhetoric, and regressive policies on health care, immigration, social programs, and the opioid epidemic.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the New York Times published a bombshell story last week that Moody settle a sexual discrimination charge in 2006 after he fired an employee – a single mother — after having a child. (The Change Research poll was conducted before the story’s publication.)

But Hayes, who worked with LePage for four years as State Treasurer, casts Moody and the Maine GOP in a more charitable light, and assigns blame on both sides of the political aisle for what she calls “toxic partisanship.”

“The things that Democrats complain the most about in terms of LePage’s behaviors and attitudes and statements end up being their legacy too because they punch back,” said Hayes, who did concede that LePage contributes most to this culture of incivility in state government. “When he [LePage] goes to the ditch, the Democrats follow him there. We can either meet a fist with a fist, or we can meet a fist with a wall.”

According to Hayes, “toxic partisanship” was the reason the state government shut down for four days in July, and why implementation of the Medicaid expansion and action against the opiate crisis has stalled.

Even though LePage is widely regarded as the driving force behind inaction on those issues, Hayes believes Democrats are equally responsible for the toxic atmosphere in Augusta because they — and we’re spitballing here — are too passionate when resisting Republican policies.

“Any Democrat who describes the outcome of Shawn Moody becoming governor is an example of that toxicity,” said Hayes. “Neither party can generate meaningful policy outcomes and problem solving. They just have to make you afraid of the other side.”

Hayes on the issues

Does Hayes have any policy ideas that distinctly separate her from Mills or Caron? We’re not seeing them.

There are actually a good deal of similarities among the Hayes and Mills campaigns. They both consider broadband access and job growth to be key issues. Both women have publicly said they’d adopt measures against sexual assault and gender discrimination. They also both support ranked choice voting, Medicaid expansion, and addressing the opiate crisis as more of a public health problem instead of a criminal one.

While decent on social issues, Hayes’ economic policies are centered around following the recommendations of the Maine Development foundations’ “Measures of Growth” report, which is void of the race or class analysis many progressives are calling for and, like Caron and Mills, is solely focused on market solutions for fixing the economy. The fact that Republicans backed Hayes in 2014 and 2016, during both of her successful campaigns for state treasurer, should tell you enough about her economic philosophy.

Hayes has also struggled to garner support from the labor movement, since 2013, when as Assistant House Minority Leader, she co-sponsored an anti-union bill with far-right lawmaker Larry Lockman that made it harder for union members to collect unpaid “fair share” contributions.

When asked what primarily attracts voters to her platform, she repeated her vision of a non-partisan and civil approach to leadership.

“Voters like that I’m straightforward and inclusive,” said Hayes. “They don’t like the us vs. them mentality.”

Learning from history

Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono doesn’t think Hayes will end up being a spoiler this year — though it’s possible.

“I don't think it's fair to blame the Democrats’ recent lack of success on third-party candidates, although it is fair to look at Cutler as part of their failure in 2010,” said Brewer. “The bigger explanations for their lack of success in recent statewide campaigns are weak candidates and poor campaigns.”

During the three weeks before the 2014 election, Cutler polled at an average of 12.3 percent and faced significant pressure to back out of the race. At a press conference a week before the election, he muddied his campaign message and decreased confidence in voters by telling his supporters to vote for Michaud if they were “compelled by their fears or by their conscience.”

This confusion was enough for LePage to win again, who later joked that he should send Cutler a gift for aiding in his victory.

According to a Fivethirtyeight forecast of the 2014 gubernatorial election (published October 31, 2014), two-thirds of Cutler supporters would have otherwise voted for the Democratic candidate Michaud. That study of polling data found that Cutler had averaged about 14 percent of the vote in recent polls, while LePage and Michaud were at about 40 percent each.

So Cutler polled at 14 percent, only won 8 percent, and still contributed to a decisive split. In August, the Suffolk poll puts Hayes at just 4 percent, but its creators say that the margin between Mills and Moody is so razor thin that anything could impact it. Suffolk’s poll director David Paleologos told the Press Herald last week that “unless someone really has a major gaffe or there is some negative news story that’s going to take one of these candidates out, it is going to come down to voter turnout.”

And Republicans know this. Last week, the Maine Republican Party paid about $50,000 for a series of attack ads against Hayes in a move clearly meant to strategically undermine the popularity of Mills, despite Hayes’ low polling numbers. (The GOP deployed a similar strategy in 2014, when they ran an ad against Democrat Michaud which also bolstered a little support for Independent Cutler). The GOP has spent roughly 10 percent of the amount the Hayes’ campaign has, on getting her message in front of voters.

“I think the assumption that Hayes has ‘low’ polling numbers is dangerous to make,” said Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party. “This election is not 2014, or 2010, or 2006. It is a completely different environment.”

The Hayes campaign commissioned their own poll, conducted by Slingshot Strategies, at the end of September. That poll found that Hayes is rising slightly in popularity and that support for Moody is slipping behind Mills.

The poll surveyed 600 general election voters and found that Mills is at 41 percent (up 2 points), Moody at 33 percent (down 6 points), and Hayes at 10 percent (up 6 points). According to the results of that poll, Hayes is garnering bipartisan support — she may be attracting would-be Mills voters, but she’s also taking some of Moody’s voters too.

“I think it’s hysterical that Democrats think they’re going to lose votes to me, when it’s Republicans who are choosing me,” said Hayes.

According to Bailey, Hayes’ campaign manager, Republicans are attracted to Hayes because they agree with her positions on fiscal responsibility, the role of government, and the size of government.

James Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine Farmington, said he doesn’t think it’s fair to blame Hayes if Moody ends up winning.

“I think this race is shaping up differently than many people expected,” said Melcher. “Both polling and campaign tactics are showing that Hayes may be drawing as much or more from Moody than from Mills.”

What does this all mean?

This election is going to be a little awkward.

It’s impossible to predict where the split will happen, especially if Hayes really is attracting both disillusioned Democrats and Republicans, and if all parties are accurate in their messaging about which primary candidates they’re pulling from.

While it’s certainly admirable to give voters choices beyond a flawed two-party system, historical data sure makes it seem like they’re not viable options — especially when they’re polling this low this late in the election cycle.

Since 1990, only five Independent candidates have won election in 302 gubernatorial races across the country. And during each one of those races, the winning Independent candidates polled significantly higher than Caron and Hayes are now, according to data compiled from RealClearPolitics, a moderately conservative polling aggregate site.

Maine’s 1994 election saw Independent Angus King win with 35.4 percent of the vote and Democrat John Brennan closely behind at 33.8 percent. According to a Maine Policy Review study of that election, the polls during the race both underestimated and overestimated Republican Susan Collins’ percentage, but were accurate in predicting that King would at least poll in second place.

When King ran for governor again in 1998, he was consistently high in the polls before winning a second term.

In 2014, Independent Bill Walker won the governorship in Alaska with 48.1 percent of the vote, after averaging 44.6 percent in the polls. In 2010, Independent Lincoln Chafee won in Rhode Island by 36.1 percent, after polling 34.3 percent.

You’d have to go farther in the past to find a notable exception. Maine’s first Independent governor, Jim Longley, was elected in 1974, and was polling at 14 percent just three weeks before election day but ended up beating Democrat George Mitchell with 40 percent of the vote.

More recently, there’s Hawaii’s 2014 gubernatorial election, which ended in a spoilery fashion. The Independent candidate Mufi Hannemann polled at 15 percent and earned 11 percent of the vote. Democrat David Ige won that race over Republican Duke Aiona, but pundits at the time said that Hannemann took enough voters away from Ige to make the partisan race unusually close for the blue state. The rare cases where Independents have won gubernatorial races in Maine and elsewhere all featured candidates who polled higher than Hayes’ 5-10 percent. Historical trends suggest that it’s highly unlikely that she’ll win the race.

Lastly, there are cases beyond Cutler’s two failed runs in 2010 and 2014 that show that a third party candidate can poll lower than 10 percent and still make a crucial impact on the final split. In Connecticut's 2014 governor race, Libertarian Dan Feliciano earned only 4 percent of the vote — just enough to cost his ideologically identical opponent, Republican Scott Milne, the race, who lost to Democrat Peter Shumlin by just 1 percentage point.

Given these cases, it’s hardly surprising that people are inclined to vote for establishment candidates simply for pragmatic reasons. In the case of this year’s election, some people will most certainly vote for Mills strategically out of fear of helping elect Moody. We asked Hayes if she thought those fears were valid.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Hayes. “It’s a fear-based perspective. They are emotional, they are not rational.”

But what’s wrong with voting out of fear? These are rather scary times, and despite what Hayes says, the stakes certainly are high. What if voting for the candidate most likely to loosen the Republican stranglehold on Maine is actually a sound strategy?

“In the Trump era, governors are the first line of defense in preserving civil liberties,” Mills said during a Portland campaign stop last month.

Unlike Moody, Mills believes that climate change poses a serious threat, and supports expanding Medicaid, guncontrol measures, publicly funded education, and abortion rights throughout the state (a possible bulwark in the case of a Supreme Court decision against Roe). Sure, Hayes supports these positions too, but Mills has proven that she’s willing to fight for them, not compromise. As attorney general, Mills has fought back against some of LePage’s policies, like when she defied his wishes and distributed the life-saving anti-overdose drug Narcan to clinics across the state. She also says she’s committed to fighting various Trumpian policies at the state level, like stricter immigration enforcement and the practice of family separation.

Hayes may consider resisting the GOP as a form of toxic partisanship, but perhaps, since their leaders often push oppressive policies, Maine needs a governor willing to fight back against their worst inclinations, instead of compromise with them. 

Francis Flisiuk can be reached at francis@portlandphoenix.me

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