BY FROMA HARROP
They make less of a ruckus than the Tea Party people, but independents in New England are brewing their own revolution. Third-party governors may have been elected elsewhere – Walter Hickel in Alaska  and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota  – but in New England, such candidacies have become almost routine.
Independents are making credible runs for governor in Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island. The strongest contender, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, is a former U.S. senator and former Republican. Polls show Chafee comfortably ahead of his likely Democratic and Republican rivals.
This regional trend preceded the Tea Party phenomenon. The U.S. Senate’s two independents are Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, both of whom caucus with Democrats. Connecticut’s former governor, Lowell Weicker, had been a Republican-turned-independent. And if elected, Eliot Cutler would be Maine’s third independent governor.
I asked Chafee: Are these independents eventually going to have their own party headquarters complete with an animal mascot?
“They are more a collection of independents now,” he responded, “but they could coalesce under a single title.” And which party would be hurt by this development? “If a third party emerged, it would be at the expense of Democrats,” he added.
The third independent running for governor is state Treasurer Tim Cahill in Massachusetts. He and Cutler were Democrats. A recent Rasmussen poll shows Cahill with 23% support, putting him a reasonably close third behind incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick’s 35% and Republican Charles Baker’s 27%.
Independent candidates have no doubt been encouraged by Republican Scott Brown’s bombshell capture of the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy. But they offer little cause for Republican rejoicing on the national level. None is putting an “R” after his name. Brown’s victory was something of a fluke, and he’s already under fire for being too liberal.
Unlike Tea Party types elsewhere, relatively few New England voters belong to the Republican base. They tend to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal and environmentalist. Many were Republicans before the party’s center of power moved south and definitely before the election of President George W. Bush. A growing number are Democrats tired of the party’s machine, run by public-employee unions.
A foe of the Iraq war and budget-busting tax cuts, Chafee became the scourge of Republican leaders in Washington. Party hotheads condemned him as the ultimate RINO – Republican in Name Only. Maine’s Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins remain in the RINO corner and may soon be joined by Brown.
Chafee notes that the right doesn’t care that he and other Republican moderates were booted from office. “That’s the base that rejoiced in the defeat of the Chafees and the Mike DeWines and Gordon Smiths and Norm Colemans that don’t fit the cookie-cutter parameters,” he said. Ohio’s DeWine lost his Senate seat in 2006, as did Chafee. Minnesota’s Coleman and Oregon’s Smith were defeated in 2008.
Another consideration for voters: The new batch of New England independents are running for state-level offices, which means they would not change the balance of power in Congress. Note that three very blue New England states – Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island – have Republican governors. Just before Chafee lost his senatorial race, most Rhode Islanders still spoke highly of the man and his politics. They just didn’t want his re-election to keep Senate majority control in Republican hands [as it would have, it turns out].
In his book Against the Tide, Chafee writes of pollster John Zogby warning Senate Republicans in January 2001, “There is a burgeoning centrist third party waiting to be formed.”
That process could very well be starting, and on America’s northeast shoulder.
– Froma Harrop’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer