LEWISTON, Maine — While they don’t agree on much, one thing Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his Democratic challenger Mike Michaud seem to be in agreement on is they don’t intend to participate in too many public debates.
Michaud’s campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt also said Wednesday that Michaud would only participate in debates that LePage had agreed to participate in and wouldn’t face independent candidate Eliot Cutler alone.
So far only four debates have been scheduled, according to Reinholt, and all of those will happen in October, just weeks before voters go to the polls and well after many have cast absentee ballots.
“We have said all along we are running against Paul LePage, he’s who we are looking to unseat,” Reinholt said explaining the campaign’s decision to not debate just Cutler.
But Cutler’s campaign takes issue with snubs saying Maine voters are losing out and democracy is suffering. Since the start of his campaign Cutler has urged his opponents to join him in debates in all of Maine’s 16 counties.
“This is a dark day for both Maine’s democracy and Maine voters,” Cutler said. “If a candidate is afraid to compare his ideas and proposals with his opponents or to submit to tough questions from panelists, what kind of leadership can we expect of him in the Blaine House?”
Cutler blasted both LePage and Michaud saying they were playing off each other as they avoided public debates on the issues that matter to voters.
“We know that Gov. LePage is a failed leader and manager, and his refusal to debate is nothing new,” Cutler said, “he did the same thing in 2010. Now Congressman Michaud is hiding behind the Governor. They are both cowards.”
Cutler said Michaud and LePage would instead depend on television advertising, much of it paid for by outside interest groups, to shape their campaigns.
“Mr. LePage and Mr. Michaud want voters to make choices on the basis of a cascade of negative television ads bought by outside special interests,” Cutler said. “They are engaging in exactly the kind of reckless and cynical politics that have led to partisanship and gridlock, have sent Maine into an 11-year long economic tailspin.”
Cutler said it was the kind of tactics that were, “increasingly turning voters away from political parties and their candidates.”
But Reinholt dismissed the rhetoric saying Cutler was polling far behind both Michaud and LePage. She also said voters would get a chance to see all three candidates go head-to-head in at least four debates and possibly more.
Michaud has based his decision on which debates to participate in on whether or not LePage would be there, effectively leaving the debate schedule in LePage’s hands.
Brent Littlefield, a campaign manager and political consultant for LePage, said they based their debate schedule on the governor’s work schedule and his other priorities in running the state.
So far there is not public debate scheduled for the Lewiston-Auburn area, but Littlefield said he was pushing for one within the campaign but hasn’t been able to move Lepage or other campaign staff on the topic.
LePage’s campaign has declined a September debate hosted by the Sun Journal in Lewiston, and Michaud said he would not participate either.
Littlefield blasted Michaud saying his decision to follow LePage’s lead on when, where and who to debate was clearly a tactic meant to limit Cutler’s public criticism of Michaud.
“They don’t want to be attacked by Eliot Cutler, that’s what they are worried about,” Littlefield said. “And it’s just not Mike Michaud’s persona to lead on anything. He doesn’t even lead on who is going to walk first in a parade. The guy doesn’t lead on anything.”
John Porter, the president of the Bangor Area Chamber of Commerce, also said LePage and Michaud had backed out of a debate they were planning.
Porter, a former journalist and editorial page editor with the Portland Press Herald, said he understood why both Michaud and LePage would want to limit their debate appearances, and it is a common tactic for the independent candidate in a race to clamor for more debates.
Porter said he had a conversation with the LePage campaign for about two weeks before they ultimately decided they were not going to participate in a debate.
“They told us they had received a lot of requests, and ultimately they had to make some hard choices and decided not to participate with us,” Porter said.
The LePage campaign gave the Sun Journal a similar explanation.
Porter said the Bangor Area Chamber pulled the plug on their debate realizing Michaud also was not going to participate if LePage wasn’t there and that having a debate with just Cutler seemed senseless.
Michaud appearing along with Cutler would only add legitimacy to Cutler’s campaign, something Michaud’s campaign won’t do given how close LePage and Michaud are in the polls, Porter said.
“If I was running Mike Michaud’s campaign I wouldn’t go anywhere the governor wasn’t present, it doesn’t make any sense for him to be boosting Eliot’s stature by having a one-on-one debate,” Porter said. “And if I were Eliot’s campaign I would want to get out and talk before as many people as I can.”
Porter, who said he also has worked on campaigns, said he wasn’t as certain about what LePage’s campaign strategy was around limiting debate appearances.
He said it was disappointing chamber members in Bangor wouldn’t get a chance to listen to the candidates debate on issues important to them and that turnout for previous debates in Bangor often draw 300 to 500 people.
“It’s disappointing, but I understand it,” Porter said. “Obviously the more information people have and the more access to information that people have about the candidates the better off the whole process is.”
Porter also noted that debates in Maine were not very often “game changing events” the way a debate can sometimes influence the outcome of a national election.
“On the other hand, I think it is just a good thing that people get the information and get a chance to either see or hear from these folks directly,” Porter said. “It’s always disappointing when the dynamics of the race, and some would call that the politics of the race, play out in a way where we can’t get more of that — obviously we end up less rich because of that.”
Steve Workman, who is volunteering to help organize a debate between the candidates for the Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce in southern Maine, said they would invite the candidates and hold the debate regardless of who agrees to show up.
Workman, an avowed Cutler supporter, said those who don’t show up will be a message to the 35,000 voters in the region that they don’t matter much.
He said his chamber decided to press on with its debate and not play games with the candidates about who would be there and who wouldn’t.
Workman also said issues around jobs and the economy were central to the election cycle in 2014. He also said Maine’s media shouldn’t be giving the candidates a pass on debates.
Workman said it’s true the candidates are all making numerous public appearances but nothing focuses on the differences between the candidates such as a good debate based around challenging questions and not just a “meet-and-greet” event.
He said the Greater York Region Chamber would hold a press conference Thursday to announce the details of its debate invitation.
“Usually you find out through the grapevine, somebody tried to do a debate and the candidates refused,” Workman said. “I view the debates as an obligation, not an option. It is our political process.”