For most Mainers, this is the scariest headline one could read in the morning newspaper:
“ANOTHER ICE STORM BEARING DOWN ON STATE.”
If you’re a Republican or Democratic politician, here’s one that runs a close second:
“GOV. KING ELECTED WITH 95.3 PERCENT OF MAINE VOTE.”
Ice storms happen, but hopefully not one like last weekend’s glacial disaster for another decade or so. The King landslide also happened — in November of 1820 when Maine’s first governor, William King, was elected to office.
According to recent polls, more than 80 percent of Mainers think that current Gov. Angus King is doing an excellent job. King is so popular, in fact, both major parties are finding it difficult to recruit credible opponents to run against the state’s jolly mustached chief executive.
So far, Republicans have offered up Rep. Henry Joy of Crystal, who is virtually unknown south of Aroostook County. Democrats are trying to persuade House Speaker Libby Mitchell to enter the fray, but she’s reportedly holding back because Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who chairs the Democratic Governors Conference, thinks that throwing money into a race against King is a waste of scarce Democratic campaign bucks.
Halfway into January of an election year, when most gubernatorial campaigns are well organized, Rep. Joy and Bill Clarke of the Maine Taxpayers Party are all that stand between Angus King and a landslide re-election victory.
That raises an interesting dilemma for the state’s Democratic and Republican politicos. Faced with only token opposition, it’s theoretically possible that King might rack up a big enough vote percentage to decertify one of Maine’s major parties. The odds of that happening are roughly the same as a major asteroid striking Earth, according to election professionals who have looked at that proposition. Mathematical probabilities aside, big rocks sometimes fall from the sky.
Ask the dinosaurs.
Were King to come anywhere near some of the state’s past ballot butt-whipping numbers, one of the state’s two major parties might well find itself sweating out its official ballot status.
“All parties must be recertified every two years. To do that, they must run a candidate who gets at least 5 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial or presidential election,” said Rebecca Wike, assistant Maine secretary of state. State law, according to Wike, would prohibit any party from nominating King to circumvent the 5 percent threshold.
Thanks to Ross Perot, the Reform Party is on the 1998 fall ballot. Maine’s Green Party is fighting in court to keep its official ballot status, which dates back to Jonathan Carter’s 6 percent showing in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign.
Let’s assume King’s name sits atop a November ballot with a sacrificial-lamb Republican and pushover Democratic opponent, plus nominees from the Green Party, Reform Party and Maine Taxpayer Party. If King broke the 80 percent barrier there’d be a major mud-wrestling battle down in the 20-percent pile.
Maine history, in fact, has recorded no less than seven gubernatorial elections in which the winning candidate tallied more than 90 percent of the vote. George Mitchell set the modern record in Maine politics with his 81.2 thrashing of Republican Jack Wyman in the 1986 Senate race.
The media tend to make a joke out of weak-sister opponents to popular political figures. For major party organizers, however, there’s nothing funny about failing to recruit a minimally credible opponent in a one-sided race.
That oversight can be fatal.
In Texas, where Democrats dominated for a century, Republican Gov. George W. Bush is so popular Democrats fear the coming GOP landslide will virtually wipe out their party’s infrastructure. The greatest modern political party meltdown took place just north of us in Canada five years ago when the ruling Progressive Conservative Party went from a clear majority in Parliament to just two seats after nominating an inept successor to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Christian Potholm, Gov. King’s pollster, says there’s little danger of the Maine Republican or Democratic Party failing to reach the 5 percent threshold next fall. For one thing, recent gubernatorial races have tended to be tightly contested affairs. Since 1982 no gubernatorial candidate has won the Blaine House with more than 50 percent of the vote. Potholm said 60 percent is about as high as King could climb in next year’s voting, even under ideal circumstances.
“Any Republican or Democratic candidate gets 15 percent for just showing up. Jack Wyman’s 18 percent represents the GOP’s `yellow dog’ vote,” said Potholm. Yellow dog is a term used to signify the type voter who would cast a ballot for his party’s candidate even if the nominee was a tired old “yellow dog.”
The problem with yellow dogs is, by nature, they are untested wild cards. Once you put one of those folks on the ballot you’re stuck with them through thick or thin.
Say, for example, a yellow dog gubernatorial candidate gets arrested for beating his wife, kills somebody in a drunken driving accident, or gets caught having sex with a baby sitter?
Would 25,000 of Mainers, which is 5 percent of the 1996 gubernatorial vote, check that person’s name on the ballot?
— WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is email@example.com