Maine Politics Sides With the Unusual

Maine thrives on its uniqueness.

More wooden toothpicks are produced in Maine than in any other state. Maine grows 99 percent of the nation’s blueberries. It is home to a cannery that imports and cans only dandelion greens. Famous people like thriller novelist Stephen King call Maine home.

The Pine Tree State is also famous for its unusual and unpredictable political landscape.

Maine’s two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are both considered centrist Republicans. The two House members, Thomas Allen and John Baldacci, are both Democrats.

And now, a four-way race is heating up over who will replace Maine's two-term independent Gov. Angus King.

"Maybe it’s because we have a ... tradition here of electing third party people. Maybe because we just have few people here in the state, we have a little more time to listen to everybody," said Joshua Weinstein, a political columnist for the Portland Press-Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram.

This year's race pits Republican state Rep. Peter Cianchette against Democratic U.S. Rep. Baldacci, Green Party candidate Jonathan Carter and independent state Rep. John Michael. Independent candidate David Flanagan dropped out of the race in July.

While not expected to win, Carter's -- and to a lesser extent Michael's -- candidacy could be decisive in deciding who leads the state.

"The Green Independent party is an actual recognized party here in Maine," Weinstein said. "The question always is, who is [Carter] going to pull from."

Maine used to be the state politicos looked at to gauge the nation’s partisanship. Through 1958, it held state elections in September, and those outcomes were used to forecast a national partisan movement. Hence the saying, "as Maine goes, so goes the nation."

But beginning in November 1936, Maine’s individualism began to emerge. That year, Maine and Vermont were the only states who voted for Alf Landon over Franklin Roosevelt for president.

Since then, Maine has voted for the loser in the close presidential elections of 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976 and 2000, a record equaled by no other states, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

Maine has distinguished itself by casting the nation’s highest percentages for Ross Perot: 30 percent in 1992 and 14 percent in 1996. In 1994 and 1998, it elected King as governor, following up on a tradition it began with the election of independent James Longley for governor in 1974.

"We had an independent governor before anyone even heard of [independent Minnesota Gov. Jesse] Ventura," Weinstein said. "That, on top of this whole business of Yankee independence, does make Maine an independent state."

Third party candidates have a better chance of succeeding in Maine than any other state. And, about one-third of all Maine voters are registered as unenrolled, meaning they don’t belong to one specific party.

"In other states, third party candidates are not taken seriously at all," Weinstein said. But in Maine, "if he’s on the ballot, he’s a candidate."

Yet another thing that makes Maine unique is that it is one of only four states -- Arizona, Massachusetts and Vermont are the others -- that has passed clean campaign finance reform laws.

The Maine Clean Election Act, the goal of which is to level the playing field to ensure fair competition -- established a system of publicly financed state-level elections in which candidates who choose to forego private contributions will have their campaigns financed by the taxpayers.

"It's just one more sort of obvious example of Mainers thinking outside of the traditional one-or-the-other way of doing things," said Carter spokeswoman Johanna Hill.

Carter, is eligible to receive up to $900,000 of those funds, making him more of a threat to the major parties' better-funded candidates.

Maine also earns the distinction of being the only state where all federal and statewide candidates sign a code of election ethics pledge. This initiative, which began in 1996, calls for Maine candidates to agree not to partake in any below-the-belt tactics during the campaigns.

A recent poll released by the Institute for Global Ethics shows that eight in 10 voters say negative, attack-oriented campaigning is unethical and damaging the country’s democracy.

"It’s almost like it’s become institutionalized," said Kathryn Hunt, project coordinator for the Maine Code of Election Ethics. "It has not been like pulling teeth at all. I would say that is remarkable about Maine and Maine’s candidates."