America’s most controversial governor has been at it again. No stranger to Trumpian statements, Maine Governor Paul LePage recently made national headlines for his racially charged comments about Maine’s heroin epidemic. The story has the other 49 states wondering: How the heck did center-left Maine get such a conservative firebrand for a governor?
The conventional wisdom cites a third candidate playing spoiler. In both his first campaign in 2010 and in his reelection bid in 2014, Republican LePage faced not only a Democrat but also Eliot Cutler, a popular independent. Cutler has become public enemy number one among Maine Democrats, who say he siphoned off liberal voters, allowing LePage to waltz into office with two easy victories. But the numbers say otherwise.
In 2010, LePage won with a narrow plurality of the vote (38.1 percent), defeating Cutler (36.4 percent) and Democrat Libby Mitchell (19.1 percent). Even without Cutler, Democrats still had a deep — nearly 20-point — hole to dig themselves out of. If Cutler’s support had gone entirely to Mitchell, she would have won, but that was unlikely. It’s more plausible that Cutler, a centrist, drew about equally from LePage and Mitchell voters. If Cutler’s votes were redistributed evenly, LePage would have won by 56.3 to 37.3 percent. Mitchell would have needed to capture over two-thirds of Cutler’s votes to win.
On the other hand, you can make a case that Mitchell played spoiler to Cutler. With just over half of the independents’ support, Mitchell was the true third wheel. In a head-to-head between LePage and Cutler, a vast majority of Mitchell’s votes would almost certainly have gone to Cutler, her closest candidate ideologically.
In 2014, LePage improved on his performance but still fell short of a majority, defeating Democrat Mike Michaud 48.2 percent to 43.4 percent. Cutler took 8.4 percent of the vote — enough to potentially swing the election. But, again, he didn’t. According to exit polls, Cutler’s voters would have split roughly evenly between LePage and Michaud in a two-way race. Do the math, and that’s a 51 to 49 percent squeaker for LePage.
So how did LePage win twice in moderate Maine? Simple: More Republicans turned out to vote than Democrats. The 2010 and 2014 elections were both low-turnout midterms, and Republican waves nationwide allowed fringe candidates like LePage to succeed even where they had no business doing so. If Democrats want to keep radical conservatives off their turf, they can’t shunt the blame onto others. They must solve the riddle of winning downballot elections for themselves.
Nathaniel Rakich is a politics and baseball writer based in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @baseballot.