Meet the longshots who could play major roles in Maine’s top elections

By David Marino Jr., Bangor Daily News Staff

UNITY, Maine — You may not know their names. They won’t be airing TV ads. But two Maine longshot candidates could still play a major role if this year’s big elections are close.

Two independents, gubernatorial hopeful Sam Hunkler and Tiffany Bond, who is running for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District for the second time since 2018, argue they are set far apart from the party actors they are running against. Their circumstances remain different.

The gubernatorial race will not be run using ranked-choice voting. The congressional one will be. Bond has said she would not have run four years ago in the race won by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden without that method in place. The Democrat ousted former Rep. Bruce Poliquin after winning the most second-choice votes from supporters of Bond and another candidate.

So Hunkler hears a lot from voters worried about him being a “spoiler.” The voting change was made in partial response to former Gov. Paul LePage’s two plurality wins, although governors winning absent majorities was a common theme in Maine politics long before his era. 

But the candidate calls himself a “true independent.” Hunkler, a semi-retired family physician from Beals, notes he has often voted for third-party or independent candidates in past races, including the late billionaire Ross Perot, who ran for president twice in the 1990s.

“I just feel like we have to do something different,” he said in an interview at the Common Ground Country Fair on Friday, where he was volunteering and meeting voters. “I don’t think either party can bring us back to community or to some kind of civility.” 

He straddles policies on both sides, saying he would defend abortion rights as governor but opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates for similar reasons. Some ideas on his website do not fit neatly within either party, such as sending federal money for alternative energy directly to Maine municipalities, who would manage them independently.

Hunkler says he knows that winning is a “longshot.” He also acknowledges that many amenable to voting for him are not as concerned about his policy ideas, just that there is an alternative to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and LePage, her Republican rival.

Spoiler risk is not as present for Bond, a Portland lawyer who is moving to property she owns in Sandy River Plantation, southeast of Rangeley. She was motivated to run again when Poliquin announced his return bid last summer. While she said she was ranking Golden ahead of Poliquin in 2018, she accused the Democrat of being more interested in political theater than legislating. 

“The two major parties are clearly failing catastrophically at governance,” Bond said.

Bond bills herself as a moderate, saying she has qualities that could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. Her top issues include addressing climate change, creating better economic support for Maine families and reforming the health care system.

Both Bond and Hunkler are quick to point out that Maine has a proven record of supporting independents, citing the late Gov. James Longley, who was the first unaffiliated U.S. governor in nearly 40 years when he was elected in 1974, plus U.S. Sen. Angus King, who won two terms as governor in the 1990s, and Eliot Cutler, who nearly knocked off LePage in 2010 but faded to a distant third in a race four years later.

But those three did not merely show up on the political scene. All had deep connections with long histories as Democrats. They had personal wealth and ran in campaigns with vulnerable party candidates, allowing them to assemble outsized coalitions. Hunkler has only spent $3,700 on his race as of Sept. 20, while Bond has not reported fundraising.

Since 1970, a third candidate has run in 12 out of 14 Maine gubernatorial races, including this one, and nine out of 18 Senate races in Maine. Former University of Southern Maine professor Bill Slavick was among them, receiving 5.4 percent of votes during his 2006 run against then-U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and Democrat Jean Hay Bright.

Now 95, Slavick remembered how arduous it was gathering thousands of signatures to make the ballot. He was still glad he entered the race if only to stir debate on a pet issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“If they have something to say, it’s important to get in the race,” said Slavick, who said he supported Maine’s switch to ranked-choice voting in federal elections. “Unfortunately, too often they’re spoilers, like Cutler.”

Major-party candidates have often chosen to play longshots up or down. In this campaign and his last, Poliquin urged voters to just rank him. After her supporters nudged Golden over the top in 2018, the congressman chose this month to refuse debates that do not include her.

Those who prefer Bond should place Poliquin as their second choice because “unbalanced one-party rule in Washington is not working,” Roy Mathews, the Republican’s spokesperson, said. On the other side, Golden respects Bond’s campaign and looks forward to seeing her on the trail, Margaret Reynolds, his campaign manager, said.

Hunkler has already shown up in one LePage ad that looked aimed at elevating him, noting his Peace Corps service. LePage strategist Brent Littlefield called it an interesting background, but he said LePage’s focus is on his economic record. Mills’ campaign did not comment on Hunkler. The independent only found 1 percent support in an Emerson College poll this week.

Bond wants her voters to rank choices again this time, but she is not advising them on who to choose, seeing her campaign as playing a vital role by pushing perspectives outside the party paradigm. 

“Even if we lose, that’s what third parties bring to these races: to get the conversation going,” Bond said.

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