In January, independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler issued a challenge to his two opponents in Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial contest: Agree to a debate in each of Maine’s 16 counties.
“There are only three of us in this race, and in light of how important this election is for Maine’s future, Maine people deserve a full airing of our ideas over the course of this campaign,” Cutler wrote in a letter to Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
Election Day is about five months away, the field is officially set, and voters have a choice to make among three different candidates. Primary election season — which wasn’t a factor in Maine’s gubernatorial race this year — has officially transitioned to general election season.
Let the debates begin.
When Cutler first proposed a debate in each county, Michaud spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt dismissed the challenge from Cutler as a “distraction from his weak fundraising numbers and stagnating support across Maine.”
LePage’s political adviser, Brent Littlefield, said Cutler’s challenge was “another attempt” to “get his name in the press.”
But a call for debates is not a distraction or solely a publicity stunt. Debates are the only opportunities Maine voters have to see all three Blaine House candidates side by side, debating policies on their merits and challenging each other. How could that be a distraction?
While Cutler probably has the most to gain from taking the stage with Michaud and LePage, debates also entail a risk.
There’s much to debate this campaign season.
Cutler has come out with detailed policy proposals aimed at lowering property taxes, improving education and the state’s transportation and communications infrastructure, and cutting transportation-related emissions and diversifying the state’s energy sources.
Michaud’s Maine Made plan puts out a number of ideas worth debating as well — from a free sophomore year at Maine’s universities to expediting renewable energy installations to a new model for determining state bonding. He recently laid out plans for combating waste, fraud and abuse at the state Department of Health and Human Services.
LePage has more than three years as governor under his belt, offering plenty of debate fodder. Notably, he has yet to unveil fully formed policy proposals about what he would like to accomplish in a second term in office. The Republican governor’s hyperbolic efforts to pursue fraud in the state’s welfare programs — and to do so in ineffective ways — are likely to be a constant theme.
At an early May appearance before the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, LePage hinted at two other policy proposals, without sharing details: a student loan forgiveness program to make it more appealing for young professionals to live in Maine and a property tax relief program that sidesteps the state’s municipal revenue sharing program altogether.
Many have begun to assume that the dynamic in this race is already set — that it’s a contest between Michaud and LePage, with Cutler trailing the two party nominees. Cutler acknowledges that many voters who might opt for him are concerned their votes for an independent candidate could unwittingly help re-elect LePage.
Through debates, however, voters have a chance to see whether the polling reflects the way the race should be.