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2010: year of the independents?

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October 30, 2010

This year's gubernatorial races feature a surprising number of credible third party candidates, including two who really could win.

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Aside from the major candidates who dominate the airwaves and garner attention from political nuts and election analysts, any given election year is sure to have a slew of third party hopefuls, independent candidates, and write-ins. Usually, they run the gamut from nice guys with some good ideas but no chance of winning to true fringe candidates who may not be playing with a full deck. Not so this time around, as at least half a dozen states have serious contenders outside the two major parties.

The two big races are in Colorado and Rhode Island, states that could conceivably elect a third party candidate on Tuesday. Rhode Island has Lincoln Chafee, once a Republican Senator, running as an Independent. His platform puts him to the left of Democrat Frank Caprio and he is currently doing so well that several key race trackers are predicting he will win the race. Colorado, a state in pronounced flux and perhaps not yet used to being a battleground, has a Republican candidate polling in the single digits after an endless string of gaffes and embarrassing personal revelations. As the GOP's Dan Maes collapses and as Democrat John Hickenlooper belatedly realizes he probably shouldn't have slowed down his campaign pace when the Republicans began imploding, Tom Tancredo, member of the American Constitution Party for less than 100 days, is within striking distance. If Tancredo, also a former Republican and former member of Congress, wins, it will be the story of the night. However, most race trackers still give their nod to Hickenlooper.

A second group of state won't elect a third party candidate but could very well see an outcome go down to a split vote. In Massachusetts, incumbent Deval Patrick, the single most unpopular sitting governor in America is, despite all common wisdom, likely to win another term due to a third party. Republican Charlie Baker, taking about 40% in polls, is still lagging Patrick. Baker's key problem is Tim Cahill, a former Democrat now running an independent campaign. Cahill is arguably to the right of Baker and there is no real question that whatever support he takes is being siphoned from Baker. Cahill can't break single digits and, while there is no realistic way for him to win, it's enough to cost Baker the race.

A similar situation is playing out in Minnesota, where the Democrats have put up Mark Dayton against the GOPs Tom Emmer. Emmer finishes in the mid-30s in most recent polls while Dayton comes in just over 40%. In the Gopher State, the spanner in the works is Tom Horner. A former Republican who once worked in Washington for a U.S. Senator, Horner is polling at just over 10%, meaning that the support he is pulling from Emmer is likely just enough to send Dayton to the governor's Summit Avenue mansion.

Both Massachusetts and Minnesota are considered to be true blue states. Were the Republicans able to take either, let alone both, it would be, pragmatically, a key building block for the emerging 2012 strategy and, symbolically, a significant blow to Democrats. Given that outgoing Minnesota Tim Pawlenty may be gearing up for 2012 Presidential bid, having his hometurf in friendly hands would have been a great boon.

Lastly are a trio of states where the presence of a serious third party candidates will reduce the winner's margin more than truly affect the outcome. Maine, Illinois, and Georgia are all likely to elect Republicans, representing two pick-ups (Illinois and Maine) and 40 electoral votes.

In Maine, Republican Paul LePage's compelling personal story and aggressive campaign is likely to be more than Democrat Elizabeth "Libby" Mitchell can top. Independent Eliot Cutler, an attorney with a background in energy and resource issues, is competing with Mitchell for left-leaning voters. However, were he not in the race, it's still likely LePage would win, albeit with a smaller margin. Also, given that Maine has previously elected three Independent governors, the distant possibility of adding to that number is not as exciting as it might be elsewhere, robbing Cutler's campaign of any novelty factor.

Scott Lee Cohen, who had to end his run for the Democratic nomination in Illinois after details about his personal life devastated his hopes, refiled as an Independent. Intial concerns that he could take just enough votes from incumbent Pat Quinn to tip the race to Republican Bill Brady never materialized. Instead, Brady holds a consistent, if moderate, lead and major polls aren't even taking Cohen into account at this point.

Meanwhile, Georgia has Roy E. Barnes and Nathan Deal getting more vitriolic by the hour. Deal, the GOP candidate, is still expected to win but, in a state that requires 50% + 1 to win, he may not get that on election day. The key to subjecting Georgia's voters to a month-long runoff campaign could be libertarian John H. Monds. He can't win or even take enough of the vote share to reasonably change the race's ultimate outcome. However, with ethical allegations costing Deal support, the presence of Monds in the race could be the final ingredient for a special post-Election election.

The ultimate lesson in 2010's bumper crop of legitmate third party contenders could turn out to be a warning to major party hopefuls that voters are no longer necessarily bound to choosing the candidate they can warm to among a paltry ballot. The spread of technology had reduced the cost to candidates to present themselves and tell their story while simultaneously making it easier for voters displeased with major party offerings to discover and support someone else. Republicans are only beginning to deal with the Tea Party phenomenon and Democrats may find themselves addressing some form of backlash from their own base after Tuesday wrecks havoc with their majorities.

The 2012 campaigns will literally begin the instant 2010 is decided, so no one should have too long to wait to begin teasing out the legacy of the independents in 2010.


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