Maine has three official political parties. There are, of course, the Republicans and Dcmocrats. If you guessed tea party as the third, you’d be incorrect, though given its outsized influence on the current administration, that mistake is understandable.

The third party is the Green Party, now known, because of a one-time ballot issue too complicated to explain here, as the Green Independent Party. It has just more than 40,000 members, which sounds impressive, except it’s just 4 percent of Maine’s nearly 1 million registered voters. The state also has 313,000 Democrats, 268,000 Republicans and, the largest number, 368,000 unenrolled in any party.

Maine’s Green Party is now 30 years old, and it’s fair to ask what it’s accomplished over that time. Nationally, third parties have contributed much to our political debate — though none over the past century. In their day, the Progressive, Greenback and Temperance parties, and of course, the abolitionists, introduced important ideas, from freeing the slaves to creating a federal income tax, from banning alcohol to ending the gold standard for currency, before being reabsorbed into the two major parties.

The Green Party is, or was, dedicated to the environmental movement, yet environmentalism, as measured by legislative success, is at a nearly all-time low. The federal Clean Water Act hasn’t been reauthorized since 1987. The Clean Air Act hasn’t been updated since 1990. The United States has done nothing significant to counter global warming, except for regulations the Obama administration drew from the 1990 law. This record of failure has coincided with the Green Party’s tenure in its Maine and national versions.

Ultimately, parties are judged by their electoral success and here the record is, if anything, worse. In its entire history, Maine Greens have elected precisely one legislator, John Eder, who served two terms from 2002-06 before Portland Democrats mustered a competent candidate to defeat him. Greens claim representation on the Portland City Council, but these are non-partisan elections and don’t really count.

Greens still can play spoiler roles, as in 2014 when they split the vote in a Topsham-Bath area Senate district, defeating Democratic incumbent Eloise Vitelli and electing Republican Linda Baker. But that’s about it.

The Greens’ greatest visibility came in the 1994 governor’s race, when Jonathan Carter took 6 percent in a contest narrowly won by independent Angus King, who served two successful terms. King won by 8,000 votes, less than 2 percent, over Democrat Joe Brennan. It’s also true that King probably drew votes from Susan Collins, the Republican nominee. Though King now fits comfortably into the U.S. Senate’s Democratic caucus, back then his appeal was as a businessman who’d streamline regulations and cut state government. Yet it’s also fair to say Carter cost Brennan the election.

Carter went on to create an aggravating political mess through his Ban Clearcutting referendum, which failed in 1996. Maine already had a significant Forest Practices Act, passed in 1989 to regulate clearcutting, but for Carter that wasn’t enough. He frustrated even his allies by including language to limit cutting on virtually every acre of the Maine woods, a hopelessly impractical scheme. Instead of improving the Forest Practices Act through the legislative process, we got nothing.

And that’s the way it’s been ever since. Pat LaMarche, the other notable Green gubernatorial candidate, actually did better than Carter, winning 7 percent in 1998 and 9 percent in 2006, but she appealed more to alienated working class voters, not environmentalists. The Greens no longer run candidates for governor or Congress, and they’ve practically vanished from the political landscape. It may see harsh, but political parties exist to win elections, and the Greens now resemble a debating society more than a political force.

What they unquestionably do is divert enthusiasm, and some votes, from progressive causes that in recent decades would normally flow to the Democratic Party. Maine Democrats, shorn of progressive energy, have fallen to their lowest ebb in 30 years. The Democrats’ problems are largely self-inflicted, but having a vague, insubstantial third party competing doesn’t help.

John Resenbrink, the retired Bowdoin College professor who founded the Maine Greens, and helped nationally, regularly fields softball questions about Green successes. The causes he cites, however, are either very old, or issues on which Greens have little influence. Electorally, the facts don’t support his contention that Greens “came close” to winning any legislative seat in the past decade.

Since maintaining ballot status is now relatively easy, there’s no real incentive for Greens to become more ambitious. But it’s fair to ask — is this party truly accomplishing anything, or would it be better to work on a much-needed overhaul of the two major parties?

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. Email at [email protected]

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