Several key gubernatorial races feature third party candidate who could play spoiler

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter

Third party candidates could be spoilers in some gubernatorial races this year. While few actually have a chance of winning, according to the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Larry Sabato, “they do complicate the calculus in a half-dozen states this year.”

Gubernatorial races have special significance this cycle, since whichever party controls the governor’s mansion will have a significant advantage in redistricting, a process which occurs once a decade in the wake of the census.

In Massachusetts, the state Treasurer Tim Cahill is running as an independent against Democratic incumbent Deval Patrick and Republican Charlie Baker.  While conventional wisdom dictates that a third party candidate usually ends up siphoning votes away from the candidate with which he or she is most similar, in this race Larry Sabato says Cahill, a former Democrat, “is draining votes from GOP nominee Charlie Baker, helping Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick.”

Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report told TheDC that she agrees with this assessment.

“I think Cahill ends up helping Deval Patrick — just because he’s splitting the anti-Patrick vote, and so he ends up helping instead of hurting,” she said.

When an early poll of the race showed Cahill in second place, ahead of Baker, Republicans went on the offensive. The Republican Governor’s Association ran an ad targeting Cahill, and launched a website called The Cahill Report, which they use to attack Cahill’s candidacy.

Cahill’s poll numbers have gone down as a result — the latest polls show him in third place, trailing Baker by about 20 points. However, that hasn’t necessarily had the desired effect. Nathan Gonzalez of The Rothenberg Political Report points out: “Republicans started to pound him and his number went down, but you’re not seeing those votes go to Baker,” he explained.

At the very least, Gonzalez says, “Cahill will get enough [votes] to lower the percentage needed to win.” He says that it is “still an evolving race,” but at the moment, Cahill’s candidacy certainly seems to be hurting Baker.

In Maine, Eliot Cutler is running as an independent against the Republican mayor of Watertown, Paul LePage, and Democratic state Senator Libby Mitchell. Cutler is a former Democrat, and Sabato and Gonzalez say that he is taking Democratic votes from Mitchell. Duffy, on the other hand, cautions: “Don’t stop watching [Cutler] yet — I think that LePage is in a fade, and I’m not sure where Republicans can go.” The latest Rasmussen poll has LePage leading 45% to Mitchell’s 27% percent, with Cutler pulling in 14%.

NEXT: Minnesota, Rhode Island, Illinois, and Colorado
In Minnesota, Tom Horner is running as the Independence Party candidate in a state that elected independent governor Jesse Ventura in 1998. Horner was recently endorsed by The Star Tribune, and a Star Tribune poll showed him attracting 18% of the vote, a fact that made the other candidates sit up and take notice. Sabato says, “You can’t rule out a victory surge for him, though it is more likely he’ll finish a strong third and affect — in ways not altogether clear — whether Democrat Mark Dayton or Republican Tom Emmer captures the governorship.”

As for how his candidacy could affect the race, Duffy says, “he seems to pull from both of these candidates, so in some ways he’s kind of a net effect… he doesn’t hurt or help one more than the other.”

Gonzalez, however, points to the fact that Horner used to be a Republican, and suggests that he is “drawing disproportionately from Emmer.”

The Rhode Island race has former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee running as an independent against Democrat Joseph Caprio and Republican Frank Robitaille. Chafee is the only third party candidate who Sabato says “appears to have a real chance to win.” Duffy agrees.  At the moment, Gonzalez and Sabato both suggest that the race is a “toss up” between Chafee and Caprio.

In Illinois, Sabato says, “a Green candidate will finish third but could win 10% or so, draining votes from embattled Gov. Pat Quinn (D), and helping Republican Bill Brady to win, potentially.” Gonzalez agreed, but noted “Quinn is so dramatically unpopular that I think he’s got bigger problems than that.”

The polls in Colorado illustrate an extreme instance of a third party candidate affecting the race. Sabato says: “Tom Tancredo, a Republican running as an independent, is running due to the severe problems of the official GOP nominee, Tea Partier Dan Maes. Makes no difference. The GOP blew that one, and Democrat John Hickenlooper is as good as elected.”