A standard U.S. political race pits one Republican against one Democrat. But in some campaign cycles, a third-party candidate can end up making a big difference. This year’s gubernatorial races are no exception. In at least five states, contests could be decided in part by how well a third-party candidate fares.
The highest-profile example is Democratic-leaning Maine, where voters in 2010 put a Republican in the governorship. Paul LePage won with just 38 percent of the vote, followed by independent Eliot Cutler with 36 percent and Democrat Libby Mitchell with 19 percent. But despite a stormy, sometimes controversial four years in office, LePage could easily be re-elected this fall. He’s once again in a three-way race that allows him to win with as little as 34 percent of the vote.
LePage will face Cutler again and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who’s considered a far stronger contender than Mitchell was in 2010. In a two-way race, Michaud would be expected to defeat LePage handily, but Cutler complicates the math for the Democrat.
The same story is playing out in Hawaii, where third-party candidate Mufi Hannemann is making waves. Hannemann, the former Honolulu mayor, is poised to face former Republican Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona and state Sen. David Ige who ousted incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie who, much like LePage, had, at times, a rocky four years in office.
Contests like these are a stark reminder that electoral politics aren’t just about the issues, but are also about the rules the candidates run under. Over the last decade or so, states and localities have experimented with electoral processes, such as open and all-party primaries. At the same time, new media have enabled candidates to reach voters without having to climb party hierarchies.
These changes are subtly affecting this cycle’s electoral dynamics. In addition to the possibility of seeing Republican governors in blue Hawaii and Maine, Democrats could possibly be successful in red states as well. There are at least three other states where third-party candidates could help decide a gubernatorial winner this fall -- Connecticut, Georgia and South Carolina. In Georgia, a Libertarian candidate, Andrew Hunt, drew 7 percent in an April poll, potentially hurting Gov. Nathan Deal, who is leading his Democratic challenger Jason Carter by just 6 points. And in South Carolina, Nikki Haley is in a competitive race with Democrat Vincent Sheheen, but a third-party challenge could take important votes from her.
At this stage, this is all just speculation. Still, these races underline one way in which parties have lost a measure of control over the electoral process. In deciding to run, a third-party candidate is accountable to no one -- and that could make for some interesting outcomes in November.
*This story has been updated to reflect the outcome of Hawaii's primary election.