AUGUSTA, Maine — With two of the same names likely to go on the November ballot, the 2014 gubernatorial election may look on the surface like a repeat of the three-way contest in 2010. But political experts in Maine say the race will be very different this time around.
The biggest difference is six-term U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who on Thursday formally joined the contest that will likely see him face independent candidate Eliot Cutler and sitting Republican Gov. Paul LePage, neither of whom have officially announced their candidacy, though both have said they plan to run.
Michaud faces a potential primary challenge from Steve Woods, a businessman and Yarmouth town councilor who ran for U.S. Senate as an independent before dropping out the weekend before Election Day in 2012. But the congressman and former Maine Senate president enters the race with more name recognition and party backing.
In 2010, LePage came from behind in a crowded GOP primary and won the election with 37.6 percent of the votes. Cutler placed second with 35.9 percent, followed by then Senate president and Vassalboro Democrat Libby Mitchell with 18.8 percent.
There may be three candidates, and two of the names may be the same, but the similarities end there, according to political experts.
“This race is going to be a very different one,” said Mark Brewer, professor of political science at the University of Maine.
Early polls, many of which were conducted before Michaud announced, show a tight contest. The most recent poll, conducted in July by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner on behalf of the National Teachers Association, puts Michaud in the lead. Earlier polls showed LePage carving out a victory.
Brewer said that despite the presence of the incumbent LePage, the 2014 race will be a contest between Michaud and Cutler to cobble together the support of “anyone but LePage” voters in an effort to beat back the electoral might of the governor’s diehard supporters.
Despite his controversial governing style, which has alienated many Mainers, LePage has a solid conservative base that is unlikely to desert him in favor of another candidate, and Brewer said he expects the governor’s numbers to stay roughly where they were in 2010, give or take a few points.
“LePage is the one given in this race. The interesting part will be Cutler and Michaud,” Brewer said Thursday. “The same people that really liked LePage in 2010 really like him in 2014. The same people who disliked him in 2010 … really dislike him in 2014.”
Brewer said Cutler and Michaud will be competing for the same blue-collar, moderate Democrats and independents as they seek to overcome LePage, who is expected to have the fiercest supporters, less likely to opt for any other candidate at the last minute.
Dan Demeritt, a political consultant and former LePage senior staffer, said he agreed, though he predicts LePage will do slightly better than he did in 2010.
He said Michaud will fare better than Mitchell, who was overcome by a Cutler surge at the 11th hour of the 2010 campaign, overtaking her lead as the top contender against LePage. Michaud has the support of the Democratic establishment and unions, and has deep roots in Maine’s rural 2nd U.S. House District, where LePage performed well three years ago.
“Michaud comes out of the gate, and from start to finish, he’s the more viable alternative to LePage,” Demeritt said. “It will be up to Eliot Cutler to overcome that.”
Cutler’s path to victory lies in southern Maine, centered around Cumberland County, which was the center of his support in 2010, Demeritt said.
“Cutler has to hope that Michaud is so strong in the 2nd District that he cuts into LePage’s advantage in rural Maine,” he said. “He’s got to stay strong in the 1st District, and hope LePage and Michaud split the 2nd.”
The 1st District is home to the state’s most progressive Democrats, who will be less quick to warm to Michaud than their northern counterparts, Demeritt believes. Michaud, a member of Congress’ so-called Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats, will face hard questions in southern Maine about his history of taking more conservative positions on abortion and other high-priority issues for progressives during his stints in the Maine Legislature and Congress.
“Southern Maine is Michaud’s challenge,” Demeritt said. “He’ll do well with veterans, with core Democratic constituencies, but progressives don’t flock to him. His position on social issues is ambiguous.”
Brewer said that while devising a way to win over voters in the 1st District will “keep Michaud up at night,” there’s a key player who could make all the difference in the Democrats campaign: liberal U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.
“Michaud is worried about whether he’ll be able to appeal to some of Chellie Pingree’s supporters, who might think they’re better off with Cutler [in trying to beat LePage],” he said. “If she’s willing to get out there for Mike, to give speeches and hold rallies, that helps tremendously.”
In interviews Thursday afternoon, Cutler and Michaud said they think the race is still wide open, with plenty of time for every candidate — including LePage — to win over every voter. Both said they believe they can woo Republicans who have supported the governor in the past.
“There are a lot of phenomenal, self-identified, registered Republicans who don’t want another four years of Paul LePage, and they’re going to have to choose between Michaud and me,” Cutler said. “They’re going to put the two of us through a series of tests about leadership, skills, imagination and about who’s got a plan to fix the state’s economy.”
Michaud said that during the time he was exploring a run for governor, many Republicans told him they’d voted for LePage once before, but would vote for him in 2014. He said he’d court all voters.
“I want to hear their input, hear where they think Maine should be going,” he said.
LePage would not comment personally on Michaud’s announcement, or the upcoming gubernatorial campaign, said Brent Littlefield, the governor’s political adviser. But that didn’t stop Littlefield from taking a jab at LePage’s opponents.
“The governor is busy successfully managing the state while Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler are chasing a title,” he said.
One last thing to watch, according to Brewer, is the role of outside spending in the race. Money from out-of-state sources has flowed into Maine elections at unprecedented rates in recent years, he said, and will likely do so again in 2014.
He said party groups and PACs would pour money into Michaud and LePage’s coffers, and that Cutler could also see contributions from sources such as Michael Bloomberg, New York’s independent mayor, who helped elect fellow independent Angus King to the Senate in 2012.
“There’s going to be an absolute flood of money flowing into Maine,” Brewer said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.