For a long time, independent Eliot Cutler seemed to be getting the “brush-off treatment.”
Running third in a five-person race for the Blaine House, the Cape Elizabeth lawyer didn’t get much attention from the two front-runners and their respective parties or supporters. Although the three candidates frequently sparred with one another in debates, Democrat Libby Mitchell and Republican Paul LePage largely targeted each other in ads and campaign materials.
But campaign spending reports show that changed on Oct. 14 — the day after the first poll was released suggesting a surge for Cutler, a former lobbyist who also served in the Carter administration.
Between Oct. 1 and Oct. 13, there were no “independent expenditures” by political action committees, or PACs, against Cutler.
Since Oct. 14, however, PACs aligned with either LePage or Mitchell have spent more than $440,000 on advertisements, mailers or other materials opposing Cutler. That is less than the total spent by PACs opposing LePage since Oct. 14 ($615,900) but considerably more than the total spent opposing Mitchell ($279,000).
The anti-Cutler spending includes:
• $218,000 from the Republican Governors Association, a national organization heavily involved in Maine’s election.
• $100,000 from the Jobs, Justice and the Environment PAC, whose officers include leaders of the state’s teachers union, state employees union and Equality Maine.
• $57,000 from the Maine Republican Party.
• $59,000 from the Maine Democratic State Committee.
The fact that the Republican and Democratic parties as well as some of the labor unions have “turned their guns on Eliot” is a sure sign to Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager, that the campaign is gaining ground.
“There doesn’t seem to be any question any more that Eliot has gained significant momentum during the last two weeks,” O’Meara said.
Several political observers agreed that the increase in anti-Cutler spending is telling.
Michael Franz, a Bowdoin College associate professor who tracks campaign advertising, pointed out that the Republican Governors Association had been targeting Mitchell exclusively until a recent ad surfaced featuring Mitchell and Cutler.
“To me, that always indicates that a candidate is on someone’s radar screen,” Franz said. “You never want to talk about a candidate if you think they are irrelevant.”
But does that mean Cutler can pull off the upset on Nov. 2?
“He definitely has some momentum behind him,” Franz said. “Personally, I think there is always a chance.”
Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, agreed that the spending could mean people are taking Cutler’s candidacy more seriously. And while Cutler could still be considered a long shot, Melcher said, the mixed bag of polls could give the candidate some political ammunition.
That’s because his campaign can selectively use the best survey results in their communications to prove to supporters that Cutler has a legitimate shot at the Blaine House, Melcher said.
“For independent candidates, and especially for ones who have been running in third place, there is always a fear that your supporters are going to abandon you to vote strategically in order to make sure somebody bad doesn’t get in,” Melcher said.
Cutler’s performance has consistently placed third in polls, but his position relative to the two leaders has been anything but consistent.
That was most evident on Oct. 13 when two polls of likely voters were released, one by Critical Insights showing Cutler still mired at 11 percent and the other by Rasmussen Reports showing him at 21 percent.
But when Critical Insights released its latest results Thursday night, Cutler had pulled up to 19 percent, within 1 percentage point of Mitchell. LePage continued to lead the pack at 32 percent, roughly equivalent to his standing in most recent polls.
MaryEllen Fitzgerald, president of Critical Insights, said the methodology used for both polls of likely voters was the same. Fitzgerald noted that the 21 percent of undecided voters remains relatively high this late in the campaign.
“He is not pulling from that group,” Fitzgerald said. “His support seems to be coming from some carving-off of LePage’s people and a lot from the Mitchell supporters.”
Democrats conceded that Cutler appears to be stealing some votes from Mitchell, but they disagreed with suggestions that the race has suddenly become a three-way chase.
“I do think Cutler is pulling enough votes from Libby Mitchell right now to make Paul LePage win,” said Arden Manning, campaign manager for the Maine Democratic Party.
Manning pointed to other recent polls showing Cutler still well behind Mitchell and LePage. A Pan Atlantic SMS poll released earlier this week, for example, showed Cutler at 14 percent — exactly half the level of support for Mitchell.
“This most recent [poll] doesn’t fit with everything I’ve seen,” Manning said.
Maine has previously elected two independents as governor: James Longley Sr. in 1974 and Angus King in 1994. King went on to serve two terms.
In the 1974 election, Longley began to pick up traction in October. And while King was consistently polling in 1994 above Cutler’s levels today, most surveys in October showed King in a dead heat with former Gov. Joseph Brennan.
Kay Rand, who served as King’s campaign manager in 1994 and later as his chief of staff, noted that there were not nearly as many polls back then as today. But Rand, who is actively supporting Cutler, said she believes the two men are appealing to many of the same voters.
The question, Rand said, is whether Cutler will be able to draw on as many unenrolled voters as King did.
“My personal feeling is that Eliot is going to peak at just the right time,” said Rand, who is active in a PAC that has spent more than $110,000 supporting Cutler. “Being the front-runner is a tough obligation for a campaign to maintain.”