AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Gov. Paul LePage cast doubt on this election season’s gubernatorial debates Monday when he said he would not appear on stage with Democratic candidate Mike Michaud.
According to WMTW, LePage said he wouldn’t appear with Michaud unless the Democrat denounced a third-party TV ad that says LePage called Social Security “welfare.”
“It’s really too bad, because I used to have a lot of respect for Mike Michaud,” LePage said, according to WMTW. “I don’t particularly like his politics, but he’s a nice guy and I think he means well. But when he doesn’t speak out against these kind of ads, then that’s sad.”
The ad, produced by liberal political action committee MaineForward, referenced a June news release from LePage, in which the governor lumped Social Security with other federal programs he called “welfare, pure and simple.”
However, LePage later clarified he did not consider Social Security to be welfare and put out a statewide robocall defending his support for the program. Still, Democrats and their allies have continued to use the gaffe to fuel attacks against the governor.
Michaud on Monday said LePage was “looking for an excuse” to avoid debates and called on him to take the stage and give his side of the story rather than duck out entirely.
“The fact is, Gov. LePage is the incumbent,” Michaud said in a written statement. “We’re in a close race, and he should use the debates to set the record straight and explain why he said in a press release that Social Security is ‘welfare’ and why Maine’s economy hasn’t recovered as quickly as the rest of the country. Mainers deserve it. It’s not a gubernatorial debate without the governor.”
In a prepared statement issued Monday afternoon, LePage’s campaign confirmed he was reconsidering participation in any debate that includes Michaud. The statement says LePage “does not see any problem with going ahead with the scheduled debates with [independent candidate] Eliot Cutler.”
LePage’s debate opt-out represents the latest chapter in a conflict among the three gubernatorial candidates. Media and other organizations have struggled to schedule debates, forums and other events featuring LePage, Michaud and Cutler in the same place as each candidate positions himself for the greatest political advantage.
Depending on which campaign is asked, the candidates have committed to five or six debates between now and Election Day.
LePage, who has a history of making controversial public statements, has been unwilling to commit to any more debates than his campaign deems necessary. Michaud, in an effort to frame the contest a two-way race between he and the governor, has said he won’t appear at any debate that LePage skips. Cutler, who’s trailing in the polls and likely stands the most to gain from debates, has said he’ll debate anywhere, regardless of which of his opponents show up.
On Monday, Cutler doubled down on the importance of debates.
“At the very least the people of Maine should expect us to come together, defend our ideas and debate the issues facing our state,” Cutler said in a prepared statement. “It’s time for LePage and Michaud to stop playing games.”
The Bangor Daily News and its media partner, WGME CBS 13, are co-hosting a gubernatorial debate Oct. 20. All three candidates previously confirmed their participation, and the event will go on regardless of LePage’s comments Monday.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.