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."

The Democratic Governors Association, trying to put the tax in the worst possible light, says on its website that Chafee's "shocking tax plan" would impose levies on "blind business owners, veterans, amputees (and amputee veterans)," noting the 1 percent tax would fall on equipment that the disabled need to drive cars.

Westerly to Woonsocket

Chafee's chances are boosted by his familiar name and a door-to-door brand of retail politics in what is officially known as the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. In the nation's smallest state, with a population of just more than 1 million people, a candidate can drive from Westerly at the southern end to Woonsocket at the northern in an hour or so.

Arriving for lunch at Iggy's Doughboys & Chowder House here, Chafee joins the outdoor line of those waiting to order. Iggy's owner David Gravino, 37, greets him with an enthusiastic handshake and back slap.

"He was a great mayor," Gravino says. As mayor of Warwick from 1993 to 1999, Chafee helped revitalize the surrounding hurricane-damaged area overlooking Narragansett Bay and attended the 1998 opening of the clam shack's indoor dining room.

As Chafee carries bags of the eatery's signature doughboys — a cardiologist's nightmare of deep fat-fried dough and crab — Antonio Ferreira, 67, comes over to get his photo snapped and a trio at the next table give him a friendly wave.

"I remember when he went to Cedar Hill Elementary School," said Hilda Poppe, 83, a retired librarian from Warwick whose younger daughter was in Chafee's class. She and her husband, Norman, 84, are having lunch on the outdoor deck with their older daughter, Nonnie O'Brien, 59.

"I always vote Democratic except for him," O'Brien says.

"He has a Republican name but he's always been independent," her father says approvingly.

What about his idea of raising the sales tax?

Norman Poppe hadn't heard about the proposal. "I don't like that," he says, frowning.

"But if it pays the debt," his wife chimes in. With the state's finances in trouble — there's a projected budget shortfall for next year of $405 million — she says any remedy will be painful.

"The others are saying they won't do it," her husband concedes, "but they might when they get in anyway."

Chafee acknowledges that suggesting the tax hike is a calculated risk. He's counting on voters to reward a straightforward discussion of the options ahead. If they don't, he says, the fault will be his own failure to communicate and convince them.

He cites former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas as a model. Tsongas' warnings about the dangers of the federal deficit and his ridicule of candidates' pandering helped him win the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 1992, though he lost the presidential nomination to Bill Clinton.

"I'm well aware of the dangers of honesty," Chafee said. His father, John, was defeated in his bid for a fourth term as governor in 1968 after he argued a state income tax was imperative. His successor, who had hammered him about it during the campaign, was forced to adopt one two years after taking office.

"It was devastating; he loved being governor," Chafee, who was 15 at the time, said of his late father, who also served in the Senate and died in 1999. "But I never heard him say 'I could have done it differently.'"

'A Wake-up Call'

Chafee, 57, is a happier, more confident candidate than he was during his last race four years ago.

Then, he was challenged from the right in the Republican primary by Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey. He lost in November to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.

Chafee felt rejected by the GOP, which no longer seemed willing to include moderate Republicans like himself.

The worst moment, he says, was when conservative commentator Ann Coulter wrote a critical column titled, "They Shot the Wrong Lincoln."

"I was waiting for someone to speak out" against her, Chafee says of the party's leaders. "But no one did."

After losing the race, he taught at Brown, his alma mater, and wrote a book titled Against the Tide. In 2008, Chafee voted for Barack Obama, his first vote for a Democrat. He weighed joining the Green or Libertarian parties but found neither a good fit. Chafee considered Rhode Island's fledging Moderate Party but thought the name sounded "wishy-washy."

Running as an independent frees him from defending party positions that are not his own, Chafee said — a liberation.

A Rasmussen survey in May, the most recent public poll available, gave him a narrow lead over Caprio and likely Republican nominee John Robitaille.

"I think this trend will continue, and it should be a wake-up call to the parties," said Angus King, who was elected and re-elected governor of Maine as an independent in the 1990s. "If they continue to spend more time on picking each other apart and less time on problem-solving, the American people are going to find other options."

Still, running as an independent isn't easy, one reason that Democrats and Republicans have dominated American politics since the Civil War.

Not since Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive bid in 1912 has anyone besides a Democrat or Republican finished as high as second in a presidential campaign. In 1992, third-party contender Ross Perot helped shape the presidential race but ended a distant third with 19 percent of the vote.

Two current members of the Senate, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, were elected as independents. Both caucus with the Democrats.

Independents for any office lack the ready-made political infrastructure that major-party candidates can rely on, making fundraising problematic and voter outreach more difficult.

"You don't have party lists, and what that means is that you have to build an organization from scratch," Cutler says. Maine provides public financing for gubernatorial elections, but the thresholds set make it hard for independents to qualify.

That means independents have their best shot in small states such as Rhode Island and Maine with relatively low campaign costs. With a New England tradition of independence, both states have more unaffiliated voters than either Democrats or Republicans.

It also helps when candidates such as Chafee have the family wealth to loan themselves significant amounts of money. Chafee and Cutler each estimate that credible gubernatorial campaigns in Rhode Island and Maine, respectively, can be run for about $2 million. In Massachusetts, Cahill puts the price tag at $4 million-$6 million.

Independents also have to battle for credibility.

"The biggest obstacle an independent faces is convincing the voters that they're not a wasted vote, that they have a realistic chance," King said. Independent candidates who look strong in the summer often fade in the fall, as voters focus on the elections.

Then there are the attacks that independents have to fend off from both sides.

"You sort of get whipsawed," Cahill said.

A year ago, he was tied in a statewide Boston Globe survey with Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in a three-way race, and he was on par with or ahead of Republican Charlie Baker in most statewide polls until this spring.

Then the Republican Governors Association unleashed more than $1 million in radio and TV ads attacking Cahill as "just another Beacon Hill politician" who was "practically the same" as Patrick.

Republicans "need him out of this race because he's dividing the anti-Patrick vote," said Jennifer Duffy of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

The negative barrage succeeded in pushing down Cahill's support to 9 percent in a Boston Globe-University of New Hampshire poll in June.

"It has become more difficult," Cahill acknowledged in an interview. "I had a very formidable positive-negative rating, and they were successful in turning it upside down; now it's a net negative." He had hoped to save his resources until the fall, but he launched his first TV ads last week to try to rebound.

"My message," Cahill said, "was resonating with people."