2010 Elections: Independents Gain Favor in Governors' Races

Lincoln Chafee comes from a long line of Rhode Island governors, three in the previous four generations, all of them Republicans. Now the former Republican senator and mayor of Warwick is running for governor himself.

As an independent.

No independent has been elected to lead a state for more than a decade, since pro wrestler-turned-politician Jesse "The Body" Ventura became governor of Minnesota in 1999.

But this year there are three credible independent contenders for governor — a record.

If the "Tea Party" movement represents an uprising against the political status quo by the right, the independent campaigns and plausible prospects for gubernatorial candidates in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine reflect a rebellion from the middle.

There are more signs of centrists stirring as national politics remain sharply polarized, a factor some candidates cite for leaving or being pushed from their old allegiances. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who became an independent candidate for the Senate when the GOP seemed certain to nominate Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, now leads the three-way field. In California last month, voters approved a constitutional amendment to make primaries open and non-partisan, a measure intended to boost moderate contenders.

"One of the things we're seeing this year is a voter revolt against the extremes in both parties and a desire to find candidates who can be elected from the middle and who can govern from the middle," said Eliot Cutler, a former Carter administration official who is running as an independent for governor of Maine.

Gubernatorial candidates Cutler, Chafee and Tim Cahill of Massachusetts promise straight talk and tough love in a year when both parties are viewed unfavorably by most Americans. Sixty percent of those surveyed in the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll say they are very or somewhat likely to vote for an independent candidate this fall, signaling at the least an openness to the idea.

"These are bad economic conditions and an extreme public disenchantment with the major parties," said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a former political science professor at Brown, in Providence. "That creates an opportunity for independent candidates."

"I think what voters want to hear is an honest recipe for recovery and some optimism," said Chafee, who left the GOP after losing a bruising battle for re-election to the Senate in 2006.

He might be testing voters' appetite for honesty: In his announcement speech, he suggested addressing the state's daunting budget gap by levying a 1 percent sales tax on food, clothing, over-the-counter drugs and other items now exempt from the state's 7 percent sales tax. In a six-way debate on WPRI-TV in June — among two Democratic candidates, two Republicans and two independents — Chafee's tax proposal was the first question raised by moderator Tim White and the prime target of attack.

"He wants to raise taxes and I want to cut spending," Democrat Frank Caprio, the state treasurer and Chafee's leading competitor, said after the debate when asked about his strategy. "That's the difference between us."

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