AUGUSTA, Maine — Tired and hoarse from a long election night, Republican Gov.-elect Paul LePage vowed Wednesday to continue putting “people before politics” and to work with lawmakers from both parties after his narrow victory in the race for the Blaine House.
With nearly all precincts reporting, LePage walked away from Tuesday’s election with 38.3 percent of the vote compared with 36.5 percent for his nearest rival, independent Eliot Cutler, according to unofficial results compiled by the Bangor Daily News.
In so doing, LePage became the first Republican gubernatorial candidate in nearly 20 years to win the governor’s office in Maine. And if current figures hold, LePage will take the reins of power in Maine with the backing of a Republican-controlled Legislature — a first since the mid-1960s.
But LePage pledged on Wednesday to put party labels aside and, instead, focus on improving the job and business climate, lowering energy and health care costs and reforming welfare.
“It is people before politics, and I mean everyone: Republicans, Greens, Democrats and independents,” LePage said during a 2 p.m. press conference held at a Waterville car dealership. “We have shared goals, and as Maine’s next governor I will work with anyone committed to these goals.”
LePage, the current mayor of Waterville and an executive at Marden’s discount stores, was the favorite headed into Tuesday’s election after leading the polls for months.
But the Republican’s bid for the Blaine House was nearly eclipsed by Cutler’s late-October surge as Democrats abandoned their party’s fading nominee, Libby Mitchell, hoping to prevent a LePage victory. Mitchell, a veteran lawmaker who served as both House speaker and Senate president, ended up with just 19 percent of the vote after polling above 30 percent just a few weeks ago.
Cutler, a Cape Elizabeth lawyer, conceded the race just after noon Wednesday during an emotional press conference at his Portland campaign headquarters. Cutler said he called and congratulated LePage earlier that morning.
“The results that are available to us this morning are unofficial and informal but I believe it unlikely that there will be a material change in the outcome,” Cutler told the media as more than a dozen staff members and volunteers looked on, some wiping away tears as he spoke.
“Although we all await the official tabulations of the secretary of state, I don’t want to make it more difficult for Paul to assemble the team he needs to govern the state of Maine and to prepare a budget for the next biennium.”
Cutler also made it clear he would not seek a recount of the votes.
“Recounts are a time-consuming and expensive process, and I think that before one engages or initiates a recount one ought to be fairly convinced that there is a substantial likelihood that the numbers will change, and that is not the case here today,” Cutler said.
Striking a conciliatory tone, LePage praised his opponents — Cutler, Mitchell and independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott — for raising “some very important issues” during the campaign. But LePage said his message about jobs and the need for change in Augusta resonated with voters.
“I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman who served his community as mayor,” LePage said. “I ran for governor because I believe the people of Maine need to be ahead of politics, even in Augusta. Today voters agreed.”
Tuesday’s election was closer than many observers had expected.
Cutler was enjoying a healthy lead over LePage for several hours after the polls closed Tuesday thanks to strong support in more liberal-leaning areas of southern Maine. But that lead slowly and steadily evaporated as results from smaller towns came in.
While Cutler captured 41 percent of the vote in Cumberland County, compared to LePage’s 30 percent, the opposite was true in more rural counties such as Aroostook, Piscataquis and Franklin. Ultimately, Cutler was the top vote-getter in only four of Maine’s 16 counties: Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Knox and Hancock.
Sandy Maisel, a longtime political observer at Colby College, said the rural-urban divide in Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial contest “exceeds anything that we have seen before,” with LePage winning 2-to-1 in many of the smaller towns.
But Maisel said he believes other factors were at play, namely the number of people who cast absentee ballots before Cutler’s late surge became obvious and the barrage of attack ads that filled the airwaves in recent weeks.
“Wherever the line is in negative campaigning, we were over it this year,” Maisel said.
Maisel speculated that the anti-Cutler ads helped convince more voters not to switch from Mitchell to Cutler in the final weeks, thereby giving LePage a victory.
But Michael Franz, a Bowdoin College political scientist, argued the attack ads likely turned off some Mitchell supporters, who then joined the Cutler camp.
Either way, Franz said, for Cutler to have come as close as he did, he must have picked up significant numbers of both Mitchell supporters and voters still undecided late in the race.
“To see Cutler take the wind out of the Mitchell campaign — that and the Republican take-over of the Legislature — is a smack-down for the Democratic Party in Maine,” Franz said.
For his part, Cutler also blamed his defeat at least in part on the preponderance of early voting this year, which he suggested may have dampened his surge. But while obviously disappointed with the election outcome, Cutler said he was proud his campaign stayed positive through the end.
“Above all, I think we stuck a dagger in the heart of negative campaigning,” Cutler said.
Asked by reporters whether having a Republican-controlled Legislature would help him achieve his goals, LePage said it would and then took a shot at the media — with whom he had clashed several times during the campaign — but also at himself.
“It’s going to disappoint the press because we are going to have a whole lot of like-minded people, so I won’t have to use my temper,” he said.