Part 2 of 2
AUGUSTA, Maine — For more than three years, a common sight on Maine roads has been a bumper sticker that reads “61%: We did not vote for Paul LePage.”
The sticker began showing up shortly after LePage took office, reinforcing the notion that he rose from private businessman to the state’s highest elected office with far less than majority support in 2010’s five-way race for the Blaine House.
That narrative took root with only a few weeks left before the 2010 election, as it became obvious that independent Eliot Cutler was surging: With all polls released to the public since 2010 showing LePage within a few percentage points of 40 percent support, the Republican governor’s re-election chances again depend on other candidates splitting a majority of the vote.
It’s not a dynamic you’ll hear talked about by any of the three major candidates, who prefer to tout their personal merits and argue that this year’s election won’t be decided by the kind of strategic voting that occurred late in the 2010 campaign. But this year’s race to become Maine’s governor — like every one since Angus King’s re-election in 1998 — will almost certainly yield a winner who garners less than 50 percent of the vote.
Cutler’s 2010 Election Day tally of 36 percent of the vote, which came after many of Democrat Libby Mitchell’s supporters switched to him late in the campaign when polls indicated he had a better chance of beating LePage, represents the high-water mark for his support. According to recent polls, many of those anti-LePage voters have returned to the Democrat on this year’s ticket, six-term U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
Democrats believe that because of his long public service and high name recognition, Michaud, a former state Senate president, is a better candidate than was Mitchell, whose biggest electoral district was during her tenure in the Maine Senate, where in 2008 there were less than 20,000 votes cast — and 7,200 of them for the other candidate.
Michaud gears up early
Privately financed Michaud, who has been stacking up endorsements and funding for months, will have far more campaign money than did Mitchell, who relied on public financing. A political action committee on Monday pledged to spend $2 million in television advertising for the Democrat. And although the campaign is downplaying the fact that Michaud announced in November 2013 that he is gay, the possibility of electing the first openly gay U.S. governor is a powerful national fundraising tool, as are the relationships the congressman made with major national donors during more than a decade in D.C.
Michaud also has much stronger in-state allies. Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant and his team engineered a successful statewide campaign to win back legislative majorities in 2012. They remain in place and will not be “complacent,” as one party leader described the 2010 campaign.
Two leaders of the 2012 referendum campaign that convinced a majority of Maine voters to legalize same-sex marriage — Matt McTighe and David Farmer — hold key positions in Michaud’s campaign. The network they helped create will be a new asset in 2014.
Motivated to oust LePage, progressive groups such as the Maine People’s Alliance can unleash scores of volunteers to go door-to-door in a “ground game” that will give Michaud an advantage Mitchell lacked, especially in the 1st Congressional District, where voters are less familiar with him. A strategy will be to convince Mainers turned off by LePage that they should vote for Michaud rather than sitting out the election.
Michaud is not encumbered like Mitchell was by an unpopular predecessor from his own party. Just weeks before the 2010 election, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s approval rating hit an all-time low of 35 percent.
Campaigning as a change agent versus LePage lies at the core of Michaud’s strategy on many fronts, including last month when he proposed creating an office of inspector general as a watchdog to the Department of Health and Human Services. It was a clear response to scandals that have rocked DHHS and LePage’s laser focus on welfare reform, specifically kicking fraudsters and illegal immigrants off state and local programs.
Michaud and legislative Democrats are also focused on Republicans’ refusal to support expanding Medicaid, which LePage successfully vetoed five times. However, that issue could backfire on them, as polls show that LePage and Republicans have effectively convinced Mainers outside their core of support that Medicaid expansion is unnecessary and too expensive.
Roy Lenardson, a longtime conservative political consultant who is president and owner of a firm called Strategic Advocacy, said Michaud may suffer from one of the same problems Mitchell had.
“The problem with Libby was that the more people knew her, the less comfortable they became and they began to migrate over to Cutler,” said Lenardson. “I think you’ll have the same problem with Mike. He’s not at ease with the beautiful people in Portland.”
To win, Michaud will have to deflect ongoing attacks from both opponents on his congressional and legislative records. Striving to lure progressive voters away from Michaud, Cutler has hammered him for what Michaud has described as his evolution on abortion and gay marriage, which he opposed while a Maine legislator but now supports. LePage’s campaign portrays him as a career politician with allegiances to national “special interest” groups, especially unions.
The immune incumbent
Polls show that LePage’s base of support has been rock-solid since he took office with 37.6 percent of the vote. Eight out of nine polls since August 2013 have shown Michaud leading LePage by a few percentage points or in one case, in a dead heat, with both candidates garnering between 35 and 40 percent support. Cutler, meanwhile, is polling at less than 20 percent.
“You don’t hear a lot of fear in my voice,” said Brent Littlefield, LePage’s chief political advisor, to the Bangor Daily News recently. “I do not believe in any statement about [LePage] being slightly behind.”
LePage has been one of the most controversial governors in Maine history because of his abrasive and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, his obstructionism in the legislative process and a series of executive branch scandals. Those include document-shredding at the Center for Disease Control, mismanagement at Riverview Psychiatric Center and his administration’s commissioning of the no-bid $925,000 Alexander Group contract, which was canceled earlier this year amid plagiarism allegations.
To win a second term, LePage will have to weather attacks from his opponents while emphasizing his accomplishments, which include a large income tax cut and repayment of nearly half a billion dollars of Medicaid debt to the state’s hospitals.
Also of potential benefit to LePage is the race for the 2nd Congressional District seat, which is targeted by national groups intent on widening Republicans’ majority in the U.S. House. Republican Bruce Poliquin’s primary win last month showed the reliability of religious conservatives who will also support LePage — and work to ensure that Maine does not become the first state to elect an openly gay governor.
But even LePage seems to know that he needs Cutler to get close to 20 percent of the November vote if he is to be re-elected. He told reporters last month that Cutler is “the guy to beat.”
Banking on another late rally
Cutler, a former Democrat, has faced ongoing questions about whether he will be a “spoiler” and keep LePage in office by siphoning support away from Michaud.
It’s a narrative that is somewhat unfair to Cutler. If not for the candidacy of right-leaning independent Shawn Moody in 2010, LePage’s margin of victory would likely have been wider. Mainers who voted for Moody in 2010 offer one of the few segments of the electorate that LePage could tap in 2014.
Another independent, Kevin Scott, also drew votes from Cutler and the major party candidates in 2010. This year, the only alternative to Cutler, LePage and Michaud on the ballot is Independent Lee Schultheis of Freeport, whose campaign motto is “I’m running for governor, but not really.”
One significant difference this year is that all three major candidates are well-known by voters and don’t face the low name-recognition numbers that LePage and Cutler faced in 2010. While basic logic says this is a positive for all three candidates, it could make a Cutler victory more difficult because there will be less of a discovery factor for voters.
But Cutler’s campaign is again counting on a late surge.
“When you look at past races where independents have won, like Jim Longley or Angus King, it happened very late in the game,” Cutler campaign manager Ted O’Meara said.
Cutler, who has donated more than $500,000 to his own campaign, is intent on heavy spending. Late last month, Cutler announced that he would personally match donations made to his campaign prior to July 15 with the intention of amassing enough money to launch a widespread television campaign.
Because all three candidates are well-known, expect the campaigns to begin saturating radio, TV and social media with ads that target their opponents rather than introducing themselves.
“Even in this type of campaign, where the candidates are known, being on the air and television is really what makes it.” said Patrick Murphy, president of Pan Atlantic SMS Group, a Portland-based polling firm.
“Watch the polls in the end of the third and fourth week after Labor Day,” he said.”That’s when everything is going to become a lot more clear.”
If that’s the case, 2014 will not be a repeat of 2010.