Is Eliot Cutler really a spoiler?


Eliot Cutler on the trail: not defiant enough? Bangor Daily News photo by Troy R. Bennett

Eliot Cutler on the trail: not defiant enough? Bangor Daily News photo by Troy R. Bennett

Even more important than the title of this piece: in free democratic elections, is there really such a thing as a spoiler? Or should every candidate fight for each vote to the bitter end?

Easily this year’s most entertaining gubernatorial race is in Maine, where the contest between Gov. Paul LePage, (R), U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud,(D), and attorney Eliot Cutler, (I), has evolved into something of a three-ring circus.

That shouldn’t be news. Nor should the fact that Maine’s race is a microcosm of one of the major faults in American politics.

We’ve never been able to develop a bona fide third party. Thus, someone like Mr. Cutler, when running for executive office outside the shadow of the Big Two, never can feel that an organization and its dedicated block of voters have his back.

And by bona fide I don’t mean filing the official papers or having a long political life on the fringes, such as the Communist party or the Green party.

Were talking about a party that fields candidates in all elections and at every level of government – from local to national – who can capture a statistically significant number of seats in legislative chambers as well as be competitive for executive office.

Because of this inability for a third party to gain any traction either on the left, right, or center, we’re left with the ubiquitously milquetoast “independent,” a label of convenience that could mean anything – and seen in the Pine Tree state with current U.S. Sen. Angus King, whose affiliation can better be described as “chameleon” and “opportunist.”

I wouldn’t have been surprised, for example, if after the last election cycle, Sen. King had caucused with Republicans had they held the Senate majority at the time. All my friends in Portland disagree with me on that one, but in politics, no one really knows, do they?

Another regional example of the imprecise “independent” label is Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who should call himself what he did all those years he was a the highly successful mayor of Burlington: a member of the Liberty Union party, or just simply, a Socialist. For a man as refreshingly blunt as Mr. Sanders, that would seem far more appropriate.

Interestingly, Vermont is one state where a viable third ideological cohort, the Progressives, has long been tagged a spoiler by sometimes splitting the left vote

More lately, those Progressives have thrown support behind Democrats whenever a pre-election deal can be struck, instead of making those pacts after the ballot. They were far more effective, and admirable, when not giving a damn who called them spoilers.

In fact, this past decade –  in the same manner the Tea Party has turned the Republican party on its head – Vermont Progressives went toe-to-toe with Democrats in key elections.

By doing so, the latter have built a small bridgehead of legislative seats all their own in the Green Mountain state – an accomplishment Tea Partiers can only dream of. So, if pushed, those Progressives don’t have to feel obliged to vote numbly in lockstep with any faction.

That’s how it works in almost every other voting democracy around the globe except in the U.S. Here, Democrats and Republicans want us to believe that somehow they’re the only credible shows in town.

To be fair, on some practical level that’s true, and in Maine Sen. King, for one, knows it. Being in the majority gets things done, so the formula is simple: use an insipid label to help get elected, then join forces with whichever party holds the most seats.

Because when in the majority, Sen. King not only gets nicer offices in the Beltway (many citizens don’t know this little nugget of Congressional service), but also wields more influence to accomplish things for all Mainers. So, yes, credit goes where its due. One thing you can say for sure about Sen. King: he’s no one’s fool.

But in terms of affecting real change, the answer for non-Big-Two voters is this: you must keep running candidates out there, win or lose. Then, whatever traction you gain over time in terms of winning seats and offices becomes your political leverage at all levels.

And the seeming panacea of instant runoff or ranked-choice voting typically is favored by those who can’t win on their own, and shunned by those who can. The jury is still out on its effectiveness, if any.

The bottom line? All of this will be academic Tuesday night, but it’s worth mentioning for the future: instead of his half-baked strategy this week of staying in the race yet “releasing” his voters, Eliot Cutler and the likes of other alternative candidates should go down swinging and concede nothing to anyone – defiantly, at that.

And for citizens who believe in, and identify more with Mr. Cutler than with Gov. LePage or Rep. Michaud: even if you think your guy can’t win and have to hold your nose at the ballot box, don’t yield an inch to either Dems or the GOP – both who have fed the nation soup sandwiches for the past century.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: They can earn your vote. Not whine for it when they haven’t.

What do you think?


Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.