Alan Caron thought he knew a lot about Maine politics after 45 years of running campaigns and organizing around issues.

But in his first time out as a candidate, the independent running for governor has learned a few hard lessons.

“I’ve learned that if you’re running as an independent (and you’re not in a primary) you don’t get any coverage in the spring,” he said. “You have to wait your turn.”

“And then it’s summer,” he said, when people aren’t focused on politics. “So your election really doesn’t start until Labor Day, and that’s generally when people start to ask you to get out.”

Caron made his comments on a visit to the editorial board last week. Most of the meeting was focused on his ideas about economic development, education and health care, issues that he has been studying and writing about for many years, including columns he wrote for this newspaper between 2012 and 2017.

But in the politics of the moment, the major party candidates get all the airtime and he can’t get an idea in edgewise. That challenges a core understanding of Maine politics – that this is a state that takes independent candidates seriously. It’s a notion based on the fact that there are more people who aren’t enrolled in either party than there are Democrats or Republicans, and we typically have three or more candidates for governor. (This year, in addition to Caron, state Treasurer Terry Hayes is also running as an independent.)

But what Caron is finding is that there is more than one kind of partisanship. There are the people who wear those flat-top Styrofoam hats, donate to campaigns and vote straight tickets, and there are people who don’t do any of those things.

They pride themselves on listening to both sides. They don’t register in a party, they don’t vote in primaries, but they can be just as partisan, even if they don’t always realize it.

“I’ve learned that there’s a tremendous fear out there,” Caron said. “I did not appreciate how great the fear is that the other people will win. What’s animating the race right now is fear of the other side.”

It’s a concept political scientists call “negative partisanship,” where people vote against what they perceive as the greatest threat, rather than in favor of the leadership they most support. It’s a mindset fed by negative campaigning and feeds general disgust with the system.

Aside from non-party registration, the other evidence that’s usually cited as proof of Maine’s role as a hotbed of independence is the success non-party candidates have had in state wide elections. In the last quarter of the 20th century, independents won three out of seven gubernatorial elections while the major parties won only two each.

And Maine has one of only two independent members of the U.S. Senate in Angus King. But the record may be not be as impressive as it looks. When you are talking about independent success at the voting booth, you are really talking about two guys, and two very unusual national waves.

The first was James Longley Sr., the Lewiston businessman who beat state Attorney General James Erwin, the Republican, and some guy named George Mitchell. The year was 1974, which was also the year that Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. It was a disastrous year for Republicans everywhere, making it a good year for Democrats in most places. But the post-Watergate anti-Washington mood was tailor made for a plain-talking businessman outsider like Longley.

Twenty years later, a TV-host named Angus King ran his independent campaign in a year that the Democrats experienced a catastrophic collapse all across the country. As Newt Gingrich became the first Republican speaker of the House in 40 years, King edged out Democratic warhorse Joe Brennan here in Maine.

King was so effective as governor that Democrats strategically decided not to contest his re-election in 1998 very vigorously. He got the same treatment when he ran for Senate in 2012 and he’s getting it again this year, cementing the belief that this is a non-partisan state. But take away Longley’s victory in a highly unusual year, and what’s left of Maine’s great independent tradition is one guy from Brunswick with a mustache and a Harley.

While there’s nothing new about non-party candidates having a hard time getting traction, the fear that Caron describes is something to worry about.

It’s the national dynamic that gave us the 2016 election, one in which millions of people who said that Donald Trump was unfit for office still ended up voting for him, because they hated Hillary Clinton more.

If you are being chased by a wild animal, fear can lead you to make some very good choices. But it’s not the best way to organize the world.

With only five weeks to go until Election Day, voters should take a minute to consider seeing if they can put their fear aside and find someone that they want to vote for.

 

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