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Can independents seize the day?

By John Avlon, Special to CNN
  • Three credible independents running for governor this year in three New England states
  • They say they're too fiscally conservative for Democrats, too socially liberal for GOP
  • Registered independents outnumber Democrats and Republicans there
  • Big question: Can they channel popular discontent into a winning campaign?

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the new book "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- Three credible independent candidates are running for governor this year in three New England states where registered independents outnumber Democrats and Republicans.

It's the latest sign that independent voters are rising from the ranks of the politically homeless to become the largest and fastest growing segment of the American electorate.

A CBS/New York Times poll released last month found that 42 percent of Americans identify themselves as independents. Registered independent (or unaffiliated) voters now outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans in 10 states, including Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.

In those three states, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, State Treasurer Tim Cahill and businessman Eliot Cutler have embarked on independent candidacies for governor.

Like most centrist and independent voters, they see themselves as too fiscally conservative for the Democrats and too socially liberal for the Republicans.

"These three races are going to draw some interest from around the country because of the fatigue with the two parties right now," Chafee, a former Republican, told me. "People are so weary of the gridlock and partisanship. It's counterproductive to moving the country forward in our very, very challenging times."

"I am a fiscal conservative, there's no question about that -- and I am a social liberal," said former Democrat Eliot Cutler, a long-time aide to Maine Democrat Ed Muskie and an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Carter. He's now a business executive. "The independents who are running in these three states are all pragmatic, politically experienced problem solvers."

In Massachusetts, the incumbent State Treasurer Tim Cahill declared his independence to run against current Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and centrist Republican Charlie Baker.

After Sen. Scott Brown's improbable special election victory this past January, people woke up to the fact that the Bay State does not live up to its liberal stereotype but instead is 51 percent independent.

"One-party rule just doesn't seem to be working anymore," says Cahill, echoing a common belief of independents. "I would say 80 percent of the elected officials in the Massachusetts Legislature are Democrat. ... It pushes solutions really to the left too far. Washington has called for more spending and bigger expansion of government than I've ever been comfortable with and I think most people are comfortable with. So I think folks are looking for check and balances."

Throughout the Northeast, Republican ranks were eviscerated during the polarizing, conservative, play-to-the-base approach of the Bush years.

Today, there is not a single Republican member of the House of Representatives left from New England, and independents are the de facto opposition to Democrats. Lincoln Chafee was among the last of the old-school liberal Republicans, typified by his father John Chafee, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1976 to 1999.

"It broke my heart to see my Republican Party inherit a surplus in 2001 -- controlling the presidency, the House and the Senate -- and then squander it," said Lincoln Chafee.

After losing a tough re-election in 2006, despite winning a primary fight from the right, Chafee announced he would run for governor this year as an independent. But can he connect with the Tea Party crowds?

"I could stand up in front of a Tea Party group and give a pretty convincing message," he contends. "I voted against the big tax cuts that favor the wealthy. I voted against the war, which cost a trillion dollars. I voted against the prescription drug benefit that's costing us $800 million. There's the deficit. ... I've got a message for those folks if they're sincere about fiscal responsibility."

There is a precedent for independent governors.

During the 1990s, when anger at incumbents and deficit spending was also at fever pitch, three independent governors were elected: Maine's Angus King, Connecticut's Lowell Weicker and Minnesota's Jesse Ventura. Then as now, the overarching message of these three successful independents was freedom from special interests and the promise of political reform.

The two-term Gov. King could have spoken for all of them when he said "the two parties are largely controlled by special interests on the extremes. ... Really passionate partisans usually have a stake in the deal, public employee unions or business that are wrapped up in the deal."

Interestingly, when you ask the three current independent candidates why they didn't try to run as centrist Democrats, a core answer is in the influence of unions on local Democrats.

"Our costs are skyrocketing," says Maine's Cutler, "and something is desperately wrong when the state Democratic Party can't free itself of both the dogma of the past and also its relationship with a very powerful Maine Education Association. ... We are basically committing generational suicide."

Rhode Island's Chafee agrees: "The Democrats here traditionally have been very, very closely aligned with the unions."

On a local level, balanced budgets and political independence are increasingly blocked by the influence of powerful public sector unions. It is an important local issue that is still gaining traction in nationwide debates.

Running for office as an independent is an uphill road, without the ready financing and institutional support available to party candidates. But with the ranks of independent voters rocketing nationwide, these three independent candidates have been competitive in local polls, with the general elections still seven months away.

Now that a new USA Today/Gallup poll shows approval of both parties near all-time lows, the time might just be right for a new generation of independent reformers who put problem-solving ahead of partisanship.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.