BOSTON (AP) -- The two independent candidates running for Massachusetts governor have little name recognition but could still play a critical role in next year's election.

While the candidates and their supporters say they are running to win, they could also act as political spoilers -- peeling away key votes from either the Democratic or Republican nominee.

Democrats are keeping an eye on Evan Falchuk, a 44-year-old Newton resident running for governor under the self-styled United Independent Party label.

Falchuk, a lawyer and former head of Best Doctors Inc., a Boston-based global health company, describes himself as "pragmatically progressive and fiscally sensible." He's staked out liberal positions, including breaking up what he calls the "monopolistic practices" of large insurers and big hospitals as a way to lower health care costs.

He's also plowed about $300,000 of his own money into his campaign.

Another well-heeled candidate could pose problems for Republicans.

Jeffrey McCormick, the founder of the venture capital investment firm Saturn Partners, has opened a campaign account with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance and is expected to formally enter the race early next year.

The 52-year-old McCormick hasn't been talking to reporters, but the Boston resident has already pumped $100,000 of his own money into his campaign account.

One of McCormick's early backers is former state Treasurer Joe Malone, a longtime Republican who just recently announced he's enrolling as an independent.

Thomas Whalen, a political historian and author at Boston University, said the hurdles to victory are high for independent candidates in Massachusetts. Even without the political infrastructure of an established party behind them, they can still use the platform of a gubernatorial campaign to drive home a political viewpoint or idea.

And even if they only pick up a tiny slice of the electorate, that can spell victory or defeat for either of the top party candidates in a tight election, he added.

"Certainly Falchuk has a pretty progressive stance," Whalen said. "If he gets any kind of traction politically, it could eat into the margins of whoever is the Democratic nominee and throw the race to the Republican."

McCormick could have the reverse effect, pulling votes from presumed Republican front-runner Charlie Baker, Whalen said.

"Baker knows better than anyone the danger of a third-party candidate," Whalen said.

In 2010, former Democratic state Treasurer Timothy Cahill ran as an independent candidate. He got only 8 percent of the vote but was seen as a drag on Baker, who lost to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who was running for a second term.

For Falchuk and McCormick, the goal isn't to be a spoiler but to win.

Falchuk said voters are sick of the kind of party squabbling that shut down the federal government this year.

"You hear all the time that people are voting for the lesser of two evils, and that is not what the democratic process should look like," Falchuk said, adding that there's tremendous interest in getting out of what he called the "left-right rut."

Falchuk said the spoiler question is insulting to voters -- pointing out that more than half of Massachusetts voters aren't enrolled in any party.

"Voters kind of resent the idea that they're supposed to be Democratic or Republican voters," he said. "Every candidate has the responsibility to go out and earn the support and ultimately the vote of each individual voter. Every candidate should be held to that standard."

Malone said he's known McCormick since the mid-1990s and has been impressed by his energy and vision and dedication to helping create jobs -- pointing to McCormick's investment in companies like the email marketer Constant Contact and the Boston Duck Tours.

"His passion now is to get into government and use the same kind of skill set to improve people's lives," Malone said. "To me, that's exciting."

Like Falchuk, Malone also brushed off the spoiler label, saying McCormick will be able to raise the kinds of issues that party candidates might shun.

"I think the added competition is good for the state, is good for voters," Malone said. "Why should we be limited to just two candidates?"

There's no shortage of party candidates eyeing the state's top political office.

Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls include state Treasurer Steven Grossman, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Newton pediatrician Don Berwick, former federal Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem and former Wellesley Selectman Joseph Avellone.

Shrewsbury business owner Mark Fisher is challenging Baker for the GOP nomination.