Two-time independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler continues to play a key role in charting the future of Maine’s non-party movement.

Next year will bring a key election for independents in the state: Mainers passed a first-in-the-nation system of ranked-choice voting in 2016 and while it’s stuck in the state’s high court over constitutional questions, it may give non-party candidates a lift in future elections.

Under such a system, Cutler would likely have been elected over Gov. Paul LePage in 2010, when he narrowly lost to the Republican. But he then finished a distant third behind LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud in 2014 and went to work on a University of Maine system project to merge law, business and public policy schools.

Alumni from Cutler’s campaigns — including Kyle Bailey, his 2014 finance director — were behind the ranked-choice voting effort. In February, Bailey started Maine Independents, a new political action committee with a stated mission of supporting “political reform.”

Cutler said he’ll be involved in recruiting legislative candidates under that banner. He called it “a refuge from the parties” that would create a community for unenrolled candidates that doesn’t exist now.

“If we succeed in recruiting a lot of independent candidates to run in competitive districts,” he said, “you’re creating not just competitive races in those districts, you’re creating a ‘there’ there.”

It’s an unprecedented project in Maine politics and Cutler said he won’t be the effort’s sole or even a primary funder. He said he hoped the group could be well-funded, citing the ranked-choice voting campaign that raised more than $2 million as a potential model.

Cutler is all in on independent Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes’ 2018 gubernatorial bid. He gave an early endorsement to Hayes, who worked on his 2014 campaign and kicked off her run to replace LePage last month, saying he has “no doubt” that she’ll be a “great candidate.”

“She is a straight shooter. She doesn’t hide the ball on anything,” he said. “She has demonstrated an ability to work with people on both sides of the aisle.”

Like Cutler, Hayes is a former Democrat. She fell out with her party after she was passed over for the House speaker position at the beginning of her last legislative term in 2012. Since 2010, Cutler has largely battled with Democrats who have labeled him a “spoiler” in his gubernatorial races.

Not much has changed: He blasted Democrats’ allegiance to the Maine Education Association, which he said would hurt it in the next election, especially after the teachers union so fervently backed the voter-approved surtax on income over $200,000 to fund education.

He said raising taxes in Maine is “not the place I’d want to be either as a candidate or as a governor or someone trying to turn the fortunes of this state around.”

“The Democratic Party in Maine is a wholly owned affiliate of the MEA, in my view,” he said. “It may sound hyperbolic, but not much so.”

This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a newsletter distributed Monday through Friday to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more, click here.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...