AUGUSTA, Maine — A survey conducted recently by the Portland-based polling firm Critical Insights showed that only half of Mainers could name each of the 2014 gubernatorial candidates, and a full one-third couldn’t name any.
But that hasn’t stopped a deluge of endorsement announcements from coming sooner than ever.
Most of these have been traditionally Democratic outfits, such as unions and environmental groups, coming out early for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee for the Blaine House. In the past month, Michaud has locked one of the largest union groups in the state, plus the Sierra Club, a leading environmental group, and the liberal advocates Maine People’s Alliance.
So far, the highest-profile endorsement for independent businessman Eliot Cutler came from Betsy Smith, one of Maine’s top gay rights advocates, who ran the successful campaign for same-sex marriage last year. Incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage announced his candidacy only this month, so his campaign has largely been quiet — though the Republican Governors Association has announced its support for his candidacy.
Lizzy Reinholt, Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman, said the string of endorsements is nothing more than it appears on the surface: a coalescing of liberal groups who are enthusiastic to get behind a strong candidate who shares their values.
“Mike has been in public office for a number of years. He has a strong voting record of standing up for the people of Maine — whether it’s standing up for the environment, for workers, for teachers,” she said. “They are eager to get behind him because they know his record, they know his values.”
But why? Why are interest groups, specifically left-leaning ones, trying to make their marks now on an election that’s still a year away, when so many Mainers aren’t paying attention?
It all comes down to two candidates needing desperately to make a three-way race look like a two-way contest, according to several experts interviewed by the Bangor Daily News.
In two recent major elections in Maine, a large chunk of the electorate was up for grabs, with Democratic and independent candidates both vying for the support of moderate and center-left voters. In both those races, the Democrat finished third — well behind an independent candidate — on Election Day.
This year, the party is determined to reverse the trend. Michaud, a six-term congressman who also served nine terms in the Maine Legislature, is a stronger candidate than both those defeated Democrats. But the campaign isn’t taking any chances, and is starting by lining up the support of traditional allies early, said Dan Demeritt, a GOP political consultant and former LePage staffer.
If anything, it’s a testament to the strength of Cutler’s campaign in 2010; That year, it was he, not Democrat Libby Mitchell, who almost beat LePage. An October surge saw Cutler race up the polls, leaving Mitchell in his dust. Cutler lost by less than two points.
Then, in 2012, former Gov. Angus King, another independent, ran away with an open Senate seat, another race in which the Democrat — state Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth — trailed badly, with only about 13 percent of the vote.
“I think it’s the right play, on Michaud’s part, and I think it also speaks to the commitment these center-left groups have for taking back the Blaine House for a Democrat,” Demeritt said. “Strategically, they’re locking in support now so they can rob Cutler of any early momentum. They want to make Michaud to be the clear front-runner, the clear alternative, and not give Cutler any chance to get any traction with these groups that typically support Democrats.”
Demeritt said the early part of the 2014 gubernatorial race should be seen as a “sort of primary” between Michaud and Cutler, each of them trying to prove to voters that they are the alternative to LePage.
Vic Berardelli, who leads the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus and worked on Jason Levesque’s unsuccessful campaign against Michaud in 2010, also used the primary metaphor.
“Eliot Cutler’s biggest source of votes will be the same people that Mike Michaud is going after,” he said. “So in that sense, they are adapting a primary-like strategy, of trying to cut your opponent off at the flank.”
Beyond building momentum for Michaud, these early endorsements could also deflate a road-tested campaign theme for independent candidates — that their Democratic and Republican opponents are simply shills for partisan interests and don’t represent independent voters, which are the largest bloc in Maine.
If Cutler did turn to that particular argument later in the race, it could hurt less because these endorsements were so far in the rear view, said Michael Cuzzi, a Democratic strategist who worked for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“The Michaud campaign is trying to get these endorsements out of the way early so that later on, when people are paying attention, they’re not used as a weapon against him,” Cuzzi said. “By getting these out of the way early, when not a lot of people are watching, they take a little punch out of that attack.”
Cutler’s campaign recognizes the sense of momentum created by the string of endorsements for his opponent, said spokesman Ted O’Meara. But he said no one should be surprised by groups that traditionally support Democrats doing just that.
“What matters is that these things usually come with money and mailings and those things, and sure, any campaign would like to have that,” O’Meara said. “But everyone who’s endorsed Mike Michaud so far also endorsed Libby Mitchell in 2010, and we saw where she finished and where Eliot finished.”
O’Meara also said that Cutler had pledged to post on his website any questionnaire he fills out in an attempt to win an endorsement, so that Maine voters can see for themselves where he stands on the issues they care about.
He also called for gubernatorial debates to begin sooner, rather than later.
“We haven’t seen these three candidates share a stage yet,” he said. “If we’re going to move this part of the campaign up by six months, why not the debates?”
As for the LePage campaign, spokesman Brent Littlefield said it’s far too early for groups to begin politicking on the 2014 election. After all, he said, there could be more candidates. The deadline for filing isn’t until March.
“Maine voters aren’t looking to find a politician under their Christmas tree,” Littlefield said. “The governor was very pleased to see, last week, that Maine hit a five-year low in the unemployment rate. That’s the endorsement he likes to receive.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.