Tips from the Trail: Winning a Three-Way Race

Waging a political campaign against a single opponent is hard enough, but when a viable third candidate enters the race, the election dynamics are thrown off in unpredictable ways.


Waging a political campaign against a single opponent is hard enough, but when a viable third candidate enters the race, the election dynamics are thrown off in unpredictable ways. Obstacles confronting candidates in a three-way race range from the portion of the vote required to win to the issue-oriented positioning which compels independents without alienating one’s base. These were the problems faced by freshman Democratic state Representative Alex Cornell du Houx in his run for reelection in Maine’s 66th House district in the city of Brunswick. In this year’s election, he faced both a traditional Republican challenger and a Green Party candidate to his left.

“Both the candidates were well qualified,” says Cornell du Houx. “The Green independent candidate [K. Fredrick Horch] has kids in the community and he ran a downtown store. He also had ties to the local paper and does work at a local college.” As for his Republican challenger, Jonathan Crimmins, Cornell du Houx says that “he had run before and had a family name in Brunswick, so both candidates were well qualified.”

A 27-year-old Iraq War veteran, Cornell du Houx also had to contend with the widespread mistrust of elected officials that pervaded the 2010 elections. “In an anti-incumbent year, I was the Democratic incumbent,” he relates. “That itself posed a challenge running for reelection.”

While New England is known as a safe region for Democrats, Republicans often win there. A tried and tested strategy for winning as a Republican in a light blue area such as Brunswick, Maine, is to split the left-leaning vote between two liberal candidates.

One of the ways Cornell du Houx fought for reelection was by trumpeting his accomplishments. Maine has been relatively unscathed by the economic downturn; the 7.4 percent statewide unemployment rate and 6 percent unemployment rate in the city of Brunswick remain well below the national average. Cornell du Houx attributed much of that to the legislature’s efforts to ensure the revitalization of a recently closed naval air station – which alone created at least 300 local jobs.

The freshman representative’s biggest problem was communicating his accomplishments to voters on a limited budget. “I went door-to-door to every single voting house in Brunswick,” he says. “It was well worth the effort. I got to talk with the vast majority of the community, hear what their concerns were and let them know how I was addressing them.” Cornell du Houx was surprised and dispirited to find that many had little understanding of the work the legislature had completed in the last session. “No one knew what we had accomplished,” he says. “Between the process and the atmosphere, everything was negative.”

Given that close to 20 percent of his district’s voters are military veterans, Cornell du Houx used a targeted direct mailer highlighting his eight years in the Marine Corps and current service in the National Guard as well as his legislative efforts on behalf of members of the military. “We saw people bring that piece to the polls with them,” he recalls.

Endorsements, including one from former Maine Governor Angus King, a resident of Cornell du Houx’s district, were particularly important, since both his opponents had higher name recognition than he did.

Getting out the vote was the final piece of the puzzle. “We did everything,” he remembers. “From providing rides to the polls to sending volunteers out door-to-door to make sure everyone had the opportunity to vote.”

Cornell du Houx won by 11 percent in the strongly Democratic 2008 cycle. This year he narrowly fended off his two challengers, winning 38 percent of the vote to Horch’s 34 percent and Crimmins’ 28 percent. There were 3,340 votes cast, and Cornell du Houx won by 137.

Although the Green candidate received many votes that otherwise would have gone to Cornell du Houx, he says he did well enough among registered Democrats and center-left independent voters to come out on top.

“In the end it comes down to face-to-face, door-to-door presence,” he says. “When community members get to meet you and realize what you have done for them.”

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com


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