AUGUSTA, Maine — With the field now set in Maine’s gubernatorial election, political observers and campaign staffers spent Wednesday trying to decipher who emerged the strongest from Tuesday’s primaries: the Republican or Democratic nominees, or the three nonparty candidates hoping once again to prove Maine’s independent streak?
For all of the perceived uncertainty headed into Tuesday’s gubernatorial primaries, pundits and even the candidates themselves were caught by surprise at how decisively Paul LePage and Libby Mitchell won their party nominations.
LePage, the conservative and outspoken mayor of Waterville, received more than twice as many votes as his nearest competitor, capturing a hefty 37.5 percent amid a field of seven GOP candidates.
Mitchell, the current Senate president, won the Democratic primary with 35 percent of the vote in her quest to become the first woman to be elected governor in Maine.
But some observers suggested LePage’s and Mitchell’s successes could allow one of the three independent candidates to make inroads among voters in November.
“It seems to me that when the Democrats elect the most liberal of their candidates, and the Republicans elect the most conservative of their candidates, that leaves a big gap in the middle,” said Sandy Maisel, a longtime watcher of Maine politics and professor of government at Colby College.
Three independent candidates have qualified for the November ballot: Eliot Cutler, a former Carter administration official from Cape Elizabeth; Kevin Scott, a business owner from Andover; and Shawn Moody of Gorham, the owner of a successful car repair chain.
Cutler’s well-financed campaign released a statement as soon as Tuesday’s races became clear saying the two major parties had “reverted to their old, ideological habits in a year when the vast majority of Maine voters could care less about party labels.”
Moody, who had been hedging whether he would stay in the race, launched his first wave of ads financed with part of a $500,000 loan from himself.
“We’ve tried it their way. Now let’s try it our way,” Moody says in the ad.
Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, said the polarizing nature of both LePage and Mitchell may have made Cutler the biggest winner on Tuesday.
But Brewer said he also was surprised both by LePage’s margin of victory and at how well he did in the state’s southern counties that are often viewed as Maine’s more liberal areas.
“Going into the primary, I didn’t think Maine was that conservative,” Brewer said. “But I think it shows how much the Tea Party movement has energized some people who may have felt alienated from the political process.”
LePage’s staunch conservatism even made him somewhat popular among some Democrats, although for an entirely different reason.
Hard-core Democrats believe LePage’s views on issues — such as his support for teaching creationism in schools and statements questioning the link between humans and global warming — will make him too “right wing” for most Maine voters.
And Mainers should expect Democrats to play up LePage’s support among Maine’s Tea Party advocates.
“The Tea Party began its takeover of the Maine Republican Party at the state convention and they finalized it last night,” said Arden Manning, who is leading the Maine Democratic Party’s 2010 election effort.
Not surprisingly, Maine Republican Chairman Charlie Webster had a completely different take on the significance of LePage’s victory and whether Maine’s moderate voters will get behind Mitchell’s more liberal views.
“More Republicans than Democrats turned out yesterday,” Webster said in a statement. “It is an indication that Maine voters want change, they are ready for reduced spending, welfare reform, lower taxes and focus on creating jobs, not preserving the status quo in Maine. We know that Paul LePage will bring that change to Maine.”
Scott Fish, owner and editor of the conservative website www.asmainegoes.com, said he believes several factors contributed to LePage’s strong showing and the larger-than-expected GOP turnout.
“I think anger is a part of it, and I think frustration is a part of it,” said Fish, whose website has seen record traffic in recent weeks. Fish said the frustration stems from concern about what has happened both in Augusta and nationally, especially since the Obama administration took power.
But can the conservative appeal that carried LePage to victory on Tuesday help him land the keys to the Blaine House in the fall? Or will LePage’s conservatism help elect Mitchell, Cutler or one of the other two independents?
“That is the question, and I don’t know,” Fish said. “The [decisive] results of the primary surprised everybody. I know people are going to be asking that question over and over throughout this campaign.”
On Wednesday, LePage was unavailable to answer that question himself.
The Republican nominee declined to make himself available for media interviews one day after surprising even himself by winning the GOP primary by such a wide margin. LePage campaign manager John Morris said the candidate had prior commitments at Marden’s, the popular discount store where he works as an executive, and would be occupied all day in meetings “trying to bring more jobs to Maine.”
In Portland, the Democratic nominee was soon back on the campaign trail.
“We want to speak to people about what they care about,” Mitchell said during a “unity press conference” with the three unsuccessful Democratic primary contenders. “They want jobs. They want health care. They want us to lower energy costs. They really don’t care about partisan politics. We’re above that.”
It was also clear late Tuesday that interest in Maine’s gubernatorial race extended far beyond the state’s borders. And those interested parties weren’t afraid to get partisan.
Both the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association put out statements praising their respective nominees and blasting their rivals.
Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, predicted Mitchell will return “the same, stale policies that got Augusta in such deep trouble in the first place.”
“Additionally, Eliot Cutler will appear on the ballot in the guise of an independent candidate,” Murtaugh said. “The truth is, Cutler is a long-time Democrat who is attempting to conceal his true identity. He promises more of the same failed ideas.”
Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, suggested LePage was “indebted to the far-right, radical wing of his party.”
“Which part of his party’s platform does Paul LePage think we should tackle first?” Daschle asked, referring to the Tea Party-inspired platform adopted at the Maine GOP convention. “Label global warming a ‘myth’? Eliminate the Department of Education? Adopt an Austrian style of fiscal management?”
BDN writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.