AUGUSTA, Maine — News broke early Monday that six-term congressman and the Democrats’ 2014 candidate for governor, Mike Michaud, is gay. The story dominated the news cycle, but the revelation is expected to have little effect on the gubernatorial race.
Michaud became only the seventh sitting member of the U.S. House to openly identify as gay or bisexual, and one of only a handful of 2014 gubernatorial candidates to have come out. If he wins the Blaine House, he would be the first openly gay governor in the nation’s history.
But experts and experienced campaign hands say his newly revealed sexual orientation will likely be far from voters’ minds by the time they cast ballots a year from now, even though it could mean an influx of outside spending.
Maine seems to have swung to favoring equality for LGBT people, culminating in a successful referendum to legalize gay marriage in 2012. According to a recent poll, disapproval of gay marriage is down to a historic 38 percent in the state, while 62 percent of Mainers say marriage equality has had “no impact” on their lives.
So a candidate coming out might just not be as big of a deal as it used to be.
If Michaud being gay ends up being the furthest thing from voters’ minds a year from now, that seems to suit him and his opponents just fine.
Michaud said he was coming out in an attempt to sidestep a “whisper campaign” to out him, but said his sexuality has little to do with his public service. He said he believes Mainers will judge him by his character and values, not his sexuality.
His opponents in the 2014 gubernatorial election, incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent lawyer and businessman Eliot Cutler, also downplayed the issue of the Democrat’s sexual orientation as much as Michaud himself.
Cutler, who has been an outspoken supporter of LGBT equality, issued a one-sentence statement: “This is an entirely personal matter and has no bearing whatsoever on a candidate’s qualifications to be governor,” he wrote.
LePage’s camp — which is set to kick into high-gear with an official campaign kickoff Tuesday — had even less to say. When asked for comment, the governor’s top political adviser, Brent Littlefield, said, “Here’s my comment,” then went silent. A few seconds passed. “Did you get that? My phone didn’t cut out,” he said.
When asked to clarify, Littlefield said, “I’m not even going to give a ‘no comment.’”
In 2009, LePage said he opposed gay marriage, but favored civil unions that included the same legal rights as marriage.
With the election a year away, polls have shown Michaud and LePage in a tight contest, with Cutler trailing behind. With LePage expected to easily secure the conservative vote, early analyses of the race have focused on the moderate and center-left votes up for grabs between Michaud — a member of the Democrats’ moderate “Blue Dog Coalition” — and Cutler, a socially liberal independent.
Michael Cuzzi, a Portland Democratic strategist and former campaign adviser to President Barack Obama, said Michaud could lose support in areas of the state where conservative Democrats have supported him.
“There may be some people who have historically voted for Michaud who may break from him,” he said. Those losses would come “where you still have very devout, religious communities, very socially conservative, where Mike has historically done well and received votes because he’s from there and is a working man.”
But Cuzzi and others said those losses would be offset by new support in the 1st Congressional District, centered around the Portland metro area, which provided the lion’s share of support for marriage equality and where voters tend to be more progressive.
Those voters may not have been particularly enthusiastic about the moderate Michaud before, but could be eager to break a barrier in electing the first gay governor.
Though a gay marriage referendum and a gubernatorial campaign by an openly gay candidate are not the same animal, there is a potential link to be drawn between the two.
If Michaud can make that link, it could be huge for his candidacy, said Dan Demeritt, a Republican political consultant and former campaign staffer and press secretary for LePage. Demeritt also campaigned for gay marriage in 2012.
“If Mike can hold the support from the marriage campaign, and it’s not a direct line by any stretch, but if he can tap into that energy and support in southern Maine … it would be substantial,” Demeritt said.
Equality Maine, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group, has yet to endorse in any 2014 races, according to spokesman Ian Grady. However, Ethan Strimling, a member of the group’s board of directors, said in a blog post that there’s “a good chance” the group will throw its “full political weight” behind Michaud.
There is also a question about whether the news will bring more out-of-state money into an already high-profile gubernatorial contest. LePage, who rode a conservative wave into office in 2010, has attracted national attention with his direct and sometimes controversial style. Now Michaud has heaped even more attention onto the race, which could mean more outside cash flooding into the state.
Most observers say that money is more likely to flow in Michaud’s favor than against him. In Maine, $3.4 million was spent on the 2012 marriage referendum, with proponents outspending opponents several times over.
Carroll Conley Jr. is executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, a member of the coalition that opposed gay marriage in 2009 and 2012. He said many groups that would oppose Michaud for his sexuality already oppose him based on his support for same-sex marriage and pro-choice view.
“The contrast between the three candidates is already so politically clear that I don’t see anybody resorting to [Michaud’s sexual orientation] for any kind of political advantage,” he said. “Some folks on the outside might come in because they’d be happy to see an openly gay governor, but I don’t see any organizations or individuals in our camp looking to counter that.”
Gay candidates nationwide are seeing less opposition simply because of their sexual orientation than in the past, said Jeff Spitko, spokesman for the Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports LGBT candidates for public office.
Last year, the nation saw its first openly gay U.S senator elected when Democrat Tammy Baldwin defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin. At the same time, the number of openly gay members of the House of Representatives grew from four to six.
“In most cases, sexual orientation is not used as much as it used to be, in terms of a wedge issue,” Spitko said. “That being said, it still happens, and we do see it in certain races. But we’re happy to say we’re seeing it less and less.”
If groups from outside or inside Maine do attack Michaud for his sexuality, it would have to be subtle, said Ron Schmidt, a professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine
“I think for voters in general, the question of gay equality is not so much just settled as it is so settled that people are probably tired of talking about it,” he said. “I don’t think any kind of attempt to make this an overt issue would work.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.