AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Paul LePage held a slim lead Wednesday morning over independent candidate Eliot Cutler in a nail-biting battle for the Blaine House as the candidates awaited full returns.
Neither candidate was declaring victory or conceding defeat as the margin between the two stayed near a single percentage point. As of 9:45 a.m., several key precincts, such as Rockland, Scarborough and Waterville, had yet to report their unofficial results to the Bangor Daily News, which on election night tabulates the numbers for the state.
According to the unofficial results, LePage had 38.1 percent of the vote compared with Cutler’s 36.7 percent with 92 percent of precincts reporting.
The margin between the candidates, which shrunk at times Tuesday evening and early Wednesday morning to just a handful of votes, was fewer than 7,500 votes.
Any recount would have to be requested by the candidate, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Tuesday evening.
Democrat Libby Mitchell, who conceded just after 10 p.m., garnered just 19 percent of the vote. The race’s two other independents, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott, had 5 percent and 1 percent respectively.
Cutler started off the night with a large lead, but as the gap between the two leading candidates narrowed late Tuesday night, the mood at LePage’s post-election party went from optimistic to electric. And each time television networks showed Cutler’s advantage shrinking — and eventually disappearing altogether — the crowd of several hundred people gathered at a Waterville banquet hall cheered louder.
“I would love to tell you it’s over and that we can all go to bed and sleep. But unfortunately there are a lot of votes to be counted,” LePage told the crowd. “We hope and pray it continues in the trend that we have had for the last hour. And I am very, very confident that in the morning we will have the first French governor of the state of Maine.”
Just after 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, Cutler entered the ballroom at the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland to enthusiastic cheers from the 200 or so supporters who still were there.
“There’s nothing surprising about what’s happening,” said Cutler. “We knew it would tighten as the smaller towns reported in.”
Cutler said he thought his strong showing reflected Mainers’ dislike for the negative campaigning that took place over the last month.
“Regardless of who wins or loses this election — and I still expect to win — we have taught a lesson,” said Cutler. “I don’t think we will see another race with this type of campaigning in this state again.”
The cheering and continued partylike atmosphere in the ballroom was a strong contrast to the scene earlier in the campaign’s war room.
After midnight the race had tightened to a dead heat with Cutler ahead by less than a percentage point. That small lead deteriorated and LePage edged up over Cutler by less than a tenth of a percent. The two campaigns jockeyed back and forth for first, trading a hundred votes at a time.
Cutler and his advisers watched results as they trickled in on their laptops, making frequent comparison checks to the 1994 campaign returns, when independent candidate Angus King took the Blaine House.
Cutler’s war room was quiet; the television had lost its cable feed earlier in the night and soft, quiet reports from advisers were accompanied by constant tapping on computer keyboards. Cutler said the campaign always had expected a tight race, within 2 percentage points.
Earlier, when the TV still was showing results, Cutler watched closely as new towns reported in.
“You can’t affect it, you just have to wait and see what it says,” he said, walking away.
As the race tightened, Cutler mentioned to his friend and campaign attorney, Dick Spencer, that a recount team may have to be put together, depending on the results.
“We’re going to wait and see what happens when 100 percent of the vote is counted,” Cutler said just before 2 a.m. Wednesday.
LePage also spent much of the evening behind closed doors with his family and advisers. His supporters, meanwhile, became more boisterous as the trend became clearer and it looked like their candidate would survive Cutler’s strong early returns.
Before Tuesday’s vote, campaign watchers were unsure whether anyone could catch LePage, who consistently had been leading in the polls.
In those polls, Cutler had lingered in third place for weeks, struggling to make headway against his two major-party rivals. All that began to change in mid-October, however, as polls showed support for Cutler growing and as organizations supporting LePage and Mitchell spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on negative ads targeting him.
Over the span of two weeks, Cutler went from having to answer the question of whether he was a “wasted vote” to being the apparent recipient of votes from Mitchell defectors hoping to prevent a LePage victory.
The race for the Blaine House began more than a year ago and was already Maine’s most expensive gubernatorial campaign by the time Republican and Democratic voters chose their respective nominees back in June.
Like voters throughout the country, Mainers went to the polls amid an atmosphere of pessimism about the economy and frustration with politicians. Nationally, Democrats are expected to feel the sting of voter anger more than their GOP counterparts.
While Maine Republicans are expected to make gains in this traditionally blue state, all sides were waiting anxiously to see whether those gains would be limited to the Legislature or would lead to the first Republican in the Blaine House since the mid-1990s.
LePage, the mayor of Waterville and general manager of the Marden’s discount retail chain, had struck a chord with conservative and recession-weary voters with his campaign’s emphasis on reducing the size and scope of government, reforming welfare and eventually cutting taxes once the economy recovers.
LePage’s now well-known life story — one of 18 children who left home at age 11 to escape an abusive father — seemed to resonate with many voters. But the blunt-spoken and sometimes temperamental Republican also turned off some Mainers, including Kirsten Hallowell of Pittsfield.
“LePage just turns me off. He’s very abrupt,” said Hallowell, who voted for Cutler, and dismissed Mitchell as part of the political establishment in Augusta.
In conceding the race, Mitchell addressed the crowd at just about 10 p.m., and alluded to the political disadvantage of her incumbency in this election year.
“The Mitchell family is zero for three tonight,” said Mitchell, referring to herself and two of her children who were vying for elected office Tuesday. “I will be supportive of the next governor, whoever that is. We’ll join hands with the next governor of the state of Maine.”
Mitchell told the Bangor Daily News after her speech that because it was obvious to her campaign that she was not going to finish in the top two, she wanted to spare her supporters the agony of waiting.
“I wanted to make sure they knew,” she said. “I didn’t think it was right to make them wait.”
Asked what made the difference in the gubernatorial campaign, Mitchell said she faced a double whammy of being a Democrat and being an incumbent.
Asked what her plans are in the next couple of days, Mitchell was momentarily at a loss for words, but then offered an answer.
“I’d like to get a new dog,” she said. “I had a beloved golden retriever named Paddington who died right after the primary. I think I’d like to get another golden retriever.”
Bangor Daily News writers Christopher Cousins and Eric Russell contributed to this report.