Despite Maine’s view of itself as an independent state, few unenrolled candidates actually win elections.
Good Party, a start-up campaign platform company that began taking shape in 2020, hopes to change that. It is using Maine as a testing ground to see if its model succeeds and what might need to be improved, with the idea of expanding its groundwork elsewhere.
While independents from across the country are featured on their site, organizers say Maine is the only state where it is conducting events and doing outreach for candidates. All of its Facebook ads have been targeted to Mainers within the last 90 days and featured Maine candidates, according to the platform’s ad library.
Its goal is to elevate independent candidates outside of the traditional political campaign and money engine that has increasingly defined elections. It also aims to increase participation from unenrolled voters, a population that the Pew Research Center found in 2019 is less politically engaged than partisan voters and who make up 32 percent of registered voters in Maine. Some independents see promise in the tool and say unenrolled candidates need all the support they can get. It is an open question whether it will be enough to get them over the finish line.
While unenrolled voters may make up a large percent of Maine’s voting bloc, elected officials who identify as independents have been largely unrepresented in legislative and congressional seats. The Legislature lost an independent and a Libertarian last session after they switched into partisan parties to take advantage of the institutional support afforded there, leaving just three independents who are counted alongside nonvoting tribal representatives. The Bangor Daily News found independent registered voter numbers are slowly shrinking in Maine.
The most notable Maine independent, Sen. Angus King, caucuses with the Democrats in Washington.
Independents are also vastly outgunned by partisan opponents in campaign financing. Contributions and expenditures for independent candidates this year came in at $328,943 — or 4.9 percent of what Republicans have raised and spent and 2.5 percent of what Democrats have seen as of Thursday.
Good Party was founded by Farhad Mohit, a California tech creator best known for creating Shopzilla and Flipagram — now merged into TikTok. He was inspired to start the company after the 2010 Citizens United decision at the Supreme Court, but said he was focused on running Flipagram until it was sold in 2017.
Mohit said the idea is not to have independents run the same campaigns as partisans. Maine seemed like a good place to try to change things because it is small enough to reach people but has a unique voting profile with its high number of independents and use of ranked-choice voting.
“We need to be able to show that our tools can help independents win without money, without special interests – just on the strength of their ideas and the fact that they have a legitimate candidacy, grassroots advocacy, they can win,” he said.
“It’s more of a crowd-voting system instead of a crowd-funding system.”
Through Good Party, those candidates are given a platform and the ability to define themselves. It also tracks the number of followers a candidate’s social media platform gains and projects how many more unenrolled voters from prior elections would need to turn out for them to win. Anyone who is not a Democrat or Republican may be featured on the site, although Good Party gives an extra designation to candidates who promise not to take money from special interests, run grassroot campaigns and promise to be civil.
The service is free for now. Mohit said the corporation is currently self-funded and looking for seed capital.
The organization has put out a voter guide and held a virtual candidate town hall last week, with plans to do another on Tuesday. Rob Booth, a field organizer who worked on Maine’s same-sex marriage and clean elections’ referendums, said a lot of their work has targeted college students to encourage them to participate, and doing outreach in individual districts.
Creating a guide and giving out information is an important part of Good Party’s work, but Booth said they are not endorsing candidates.
“We just want (young voters) to have the information that it takes to make the best choice and to feel like there is a choice outside of that two-party system that has demoralized people so deeply,” he said.
For Lindsey Harwarth, a China independent farmer who has run for House District 62 twice before and now faces Republican Katrina Smith and Democrat Pamela Swift, any elevation could be helpful. She has not raised any money and does not have a website, but has received endorsements from the powerful Maine Education Association and the Maine Gun Safety Coalition. She has done a few interviews with Good Party, which she is allowed to use on her social media.
She said smaller towns rarely hold candidate forums where people without major spending can connect with people. Good Party gives her more reach, although it still estimates she needs more engagement to win.
“Getting young people engaged and letting them know there are independents in Maine, no one is really doing work around that,” she said.
The highest-level candidate featured on Good Party is Tiffany Bond, who is competing in a high-money campaign against Republican Bruce Poliquin and incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Bond is not fundraising and has built her campaign on encouraging any donations that would be sent to her to be used for charity or supporting small businesses.
An active Twitter user, Bond said her biggest problem is what she saw as unequal treatment by the media and her opponents’ unwillingness to debate, noting both had either not committed to debates or canceled participation in them; only one forum with all three has been held. She said she was wary of engaging with Good Party but viewed its cause as noble.
“It might make a difference in a race small enough where you could knock on everyone’s door, versus a race where you’re all over the state,” she said.
Rep. Walter Riseman, I-Harrison, running for his third term, said he had not sought Good Party’s help and had not been working actively with them. He said it is a good resource because independents could use whatever help is available to draw attention from partisans, and hopes it helps get more elected.
But in his district, which encompasses Harrison, Bridgton and Denmark, Riseman said his success as an independent has all come from making his constituents feel involved in his legislative efforts and communicating with them often.
“If you can show people you’re going to represent them and not partisan goals, you can get people to vote for you based on who you are,” he said.
Caitlin Andrews covers state government and elections for The Maine Monitor. Reach her with other story ideas by email: email@example.com.