AUGUSTA, Maine — A poll released Wednesday shows Republican Paul LePage with a 14-point lead over Democrat Libby Mitchell in a gubernatorial race that has begun attracting attention and money from the national parties.
The automated telephone survey of more than 1,400 likely Maine voters found that 43 percent of respondents favored LePage — the Republican mayor of Waterville — versus 29 percent who preferred Mitchell, according to Public Policy Polling of North Carolina.
Cutler, a successful lawyer from Cape Elizabeth, led the pack of independents with 11 percent, followed by Moody with 5 percent and Scott with 1 percent. Twelve percent of survey participants remained undecided, and the poll had a margin of error of 2.6 percent.
Coincidentally, the poll was released the same day that two national political organizations — the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association — began airing ads on Maine television networks.
The Republican ad highlights LePage’s rise from a homeless youth to an executive at the discounter Marden’s and mayor of Waterville. The Democratic ad, meanwhile, goes after LePage for supporting nuclear energy and potential oil exploration off Maine’s coast.
Observers interpreted the two organizations’ entrance into a Maine gubernatorial race as a sign that the Blaine House is very much in play this November, especially as Republicans nationwide seek to take advantage of voter discontent and uneasiness.
Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, noted that LePage has been able to hold ground or gain in the polls despite keeping a very low profile since the primary.
“I think he absolutely could win,” Melcher said. “In a lot of places, it’s a good year to be an outsider.”
Mitchell, a veteran lawmaker and currently Senate president, emerged from the primary with arguably the most name recognition, Melcher said, but still trails LePage by 14 percent in the PPP poll.
The poll indicates that Cutler, meanwhile, has been unable to gain significant traction in recent months despite considerable television advertising, Melcher said.
“With a third-party candidate, there’s a lot of urgency to show how well you are going to do so that people stick with you,” Melcher said.
Bowdoin College political science professor Christian Potholm said he also sees potential trouble for Cutler.
A political consultant and professional pollster, Potholm said he doesn’t believe the dynamics are right this year for an independent because LePage is likely to win many Franco-American voters and there are a number of candidates seeking the small-business vote.
Potholm said he believes any additional surge for Moody — the owner of a successful chain of car collision repair centers in southern Maine — will take away from LePage. But Potholm said he believes there is zero chance the campaign will become a four-way race.
“It is a two-person race, not a four-person race,” he said.
Representatives of the various campaigns had their own takes on the PPP poll.
David Loughran, spokesman for Mitchell, said the poll confirms that this is essentially a two-person race between the two major-party contenders. As for Mitchell’s 14-point deficit in this poll, Loughran said November is still a long way away.
“Over the course of the fall, as people get to know Libby more and get to know Paul LePage more, we believe she will be moving up in the race,” Loughran said.
Brent Littlefield, a veteran campaign strategist working as a consultant for the LePage campaign, pointed out that LePage has a 14-point lead in a survey conducted by what is widely regarded as a Democratic polling firm.
Littlefield said the poll reflects what his campaign is hearing and seeing, namely that people resonate with LePage’s message and life history.
“I think people see Paul as a breath of fresh air and someone who will bring a new approach to the challenges Maine faces,” he said.
Cutler spokesman Ted O’Meara said his campaign’s internal polling, as well as an earlier poll released by Rasmussen Reports, showed that Cutler is actually the only candidate that is closing the gap on LePage.
The campaign’s internal poll, conducted by a Virginia-based firm, showed Cutler gaining 2 percent — from 13 percent to 15 percent — while he gained 1 percent in the Rasmussen poll.
“Right now it’s a function of name recognition, and we have a very aggressive campaign around the state,” O’Meara said.