PORTLAND, Maine — Planned Parenthood’s Maine Action Fund political action committee endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud for governor Monday during an event in Portland.

The endorsement adds another high-profile liberal group to Michaud’s portfolio, as the Blue Dog Democrat’s supporters push to unify left-leaning Mainers around their candidate and avoid splitting votes with independent challenger Eliot Cutler.

In 2010, Republican Paul LePage won his first term as governor in a race many political analysts believe went to LePage because Cutler and Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell divided the liberal vote.

Monday’s Planned Parenthood PAC endorsement came nearly four months after gay rights group Equality Maine announced its support for Michaud and included a similar “call to action” to the organization’s more than 10,000 supporters in Maine.

“We’re energized by today’s endorsement,” said Dana Fadel of Portland, a certified sex educator and columnist who volunteers for Planned Parenthood. “We’ll be out in force, knocking on doors, making phone calls and educating voters.”

The endorsement also drew quick criticism from Michaud’s opponents in the governor’s race, who highlighted the fact that Michaud’s position on reproductive rights has evolved since his time in the Maine Legislature.

“In this race for governor, the stakes for Maine women could not be higher, and the contrast between Mike Michaud and Gov. LePage is clear,” Nicole Clegg, chairwoman of the Maine Action Fund PAC, said in a written statement. “Mike is a trusted supporter of our issues. He is a strong, thoughtful and experienced leader, and we’re proud to endorse him as the candidate we can count on to move Maine forward.”

Cutler’s campaign suggested Cutler is more deserving of the endorsement than Michaud because while serving in the Maine Legislature, Michaud voted against bills designed to strengthen and protect reproductive rights.

“We at the Cutler campaign remain proud of Eliot’s lifelong and continuing commitment to allowing all women —- regardless of ZIP code, occupation or level of affluence — to make their own health care decisions and to have access to preventive health care, family planning and abortion services,” Cutler spokeswoman Crystal Canney said. “We are confident that Maine women and men will compare the records of the candidates and support Eliot as the candidate whose record and positions on these and other fundamental issues always have been principled and continue to reflect his unwavering core values.”

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s campaign strategist, was equally critical of Michaud’s voting history in a written statement issued Monday.

“Michael Michaud has flip-flopped on issue after issue,” Littlefield said. “However, one thing is now crystal clear: Michaud will do whatever it takes to get as much liberal outside money as possible. For Michael Michaud, it is not about what is best for Maine; it is about what is best for the national liberal special interests in Washington.”

Planned Parenthood representatives and supporters Monday came to the defense of Michaud’s record on the subject of reproductive rights.

“Politicians with the courage to do so can grow and change their views on abortion rights,” said Clegg, one of dozens of people clad in pink at the Monday morning endorsement news conference.

“I wonder why sometimes we expect our political leaders to be fixed in their positions,” added the Rev. Sue Gabrielson, a Sanford minister and executive director of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination. “Even over careers lasting as long as 20 years, when they grow and change their positions over time, they get accused of being ‘wishy-washy.’”

Although LePage as governor has not championed legislation to limit access to reproductive services in Maine, Clegg made it clear the Republican had no chance of winning the organization’s endorsement, calling him an “outspoken opponent of reproductive rights.”

Michaud echoed that sentiment.

“As governor, I will not tolerate such attacks,” Michaud said in a written statement. “I will unequivocally support and protect a woman’s right to make her own personal private medical decisions. Women don’t turn to politicians for advice about birth control, mammograms, cancer screenings or treatments. So politicians should not be involved in a woman’s personal medical decisions about her pregnancy.”

Michaud, serving his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, said if elected, he “will unequivocally support and defend a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body.”

“Planned Parenthood knows that they can trust me to stand with them,” he added. “Women can trust Planned Parenthood, and Planned Parenthood can trust me.”

Earlier this year, Michaud received the endorsement of another women’s rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America. In its endorsement, the group cited Michaud’s changing stance.

“His evolution on the issue of reproductive freedom and abortion access comes as a result of taking the time to hear the real stories of women and families who have grappled with these personal decisions in his state,” Ilyse Hogue, the organization’s president, said in March.

In 2002, NARAL, which has 12,000 members in Maine, gave Michaud one of the worst rankings of any Democrat in Congress. But since 2010, the group has given him a perfect 100-percent voting record ranking when it comes to votes on reproductive rights.

In 2002, when Michaud was elected to his first congressional term, he was endorsed by the National Right-to-Life PAC. The race was described by the organization as the only pro-life Democrat against a pro-choice Republican, Kevin Raye. During that election, the organization spent more than $11,000 on Michaud’s behalf.

“It is disappointing that Planned Parenthood of Northern New England chose to endorse a candidate with such a poor record on women’s reproductive rights, one who cast 28 years of anti-choice votes while taking thousands of dollars from right-to-life groups during his political career,” said Canney.

The Cutler campaign will host a reception titled “Pro-Choice, Pro-Cutler” for women who support the independent candidate at the Cumberland Club in Portland on June 25.

The Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund PAC describes itself as the political watchdog group for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England health centers in Maine, which provide health care for thousands of Mainers each year. It has a history of making relatively small expenditures in elections. In 2012, for example, the group spent a total of $2,200 to print literature in support of Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn; Democratic Senate candidate Colleen Quint of Minot; Democratic House candidate Elizabeth Miller of Somerville; Democratic candidate Jean-Marie Caterina of Scarborough; and Sen. Dick Woodbury, I-Yarmouth.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.