LEWISTON, Maine — The three-man Maine governor’s race drew higher than expected voter turnout Tuesday, leaving the outcome in doubt late Tuesday night.
At 11 p.m., the contest between incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud was too close to call. Trailing badly, independent Eliot Cutler conceded shortly after 10 p.m.
As anticipated, LePage did well with voters in rural areas and northern Maine. Michaud fared better in urban areas.
Three hours after polls closed, LePage and Michaud remained bunkered down at their respective election night headquarters.
LePage was with family and supporters at the Franco-American Heritage Center in his hometown of Lewiston. For the incumbent, a victory would signal a validation of his agenda, based on a vision of a leaner and more business-friendly government. A loss would represent a rebuke of his pugnacious, controversial governing style, which has been a hallmark of four years in office and earned him national media attention.
Michaud watched the results come in at Port City Music Hall in Portland, far from his hometown of East Millinocket. Michaud and his Democratic Party allies have attempted to paint the race as a referendum on LePage, and have portrayed Michaud as the bipartisan medicine needed to bring civility back to Augusta. A victory for Michaud would mark the first time an openly gay candidate was elected governor in the United States.
In his concession from Portland’s Ocean Gateway, Cutler vowed to work toward ways that would improve chances for future independent candidates.
“I’m going to spend an awful lot of time over the next year trying to get ranked choice voting implemented in Maine,” Cutler said. “I think it will get rid of the negative campaigning, it will get rid of the negative advertising and restore civil discourse.”
About whether he’d considered running for another office after this: “Who knows? Never say never.”
Despite being the most expensive gubernatorial contest in the state’s history — outside groups spent nearly $11.8 million attempting to buy the Blaine House — the shape of the race had remained stable for the past several months. Nearly every independent poll showed a statistical tie between Michaud and LePage, with Cutler trailing far behind.
Because the race was so close — renowned forecaster Nate Silver declared it the closest gubernatorial contest in the country — many experts and observers say the outcome will depend on which party better energized its partisans to get to the polls, not on which one successfully convinced swing voters to join their camp.
Those get-out-the-vote efforts seemed to bear fruit Tuesday, when turnout across Maine was higher than expected in other parts of the country, bolstered in no small part by a gubernatorial race that has dominated the campaign cycle.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said more than 55 percent of registered voters likely would have cast ballots on Tuesday. That’s a higher turnout than some states see in presidential election years.
Michaud’s staff said they were buoyed by reports of heavy voter turnout across the state.
“Generally, heavy turnout in this state usually favors Democrats,” David Farmer, a senior consultant on the Michaud campaign, said.
It was standing-room-only by 9:30 p.m. at Michaud’s party. After 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree claimed victory in her contest, a large screen was erected over the stage which quickly became a focal point. The crowd booed when it showed video of LePage casting his ballot. A large cheer went up when it reported that Democrat Jeanne Shaheen defeated Republican Scott Brown for one of New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seats. At 9:50 p.m., the first time Michaud was shown with a lead in early returns, another whoop went up, though most everyone recognized it would likely be a long night.
Buoyed by taking Portland by roughly 12,000 votes, Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said the race was still headed for a close finish.
“I think it’s going to be a really tight race and it’s going to be a really late night,” said Reinholt, who said Michaud was performing especially well in southern Maine.
LePage supporters in Lewiston were jubilant as early results poured in, showing LePage leading MIchaud by several points with one-third of precincts reported by 10:45 p.m., according to BDN election results. Revelers cheered each time a local TV broadcast confirmed the tentative results.
While LePage had not yet addressed the crowd by 11 p.m., his campaign spokesman, Alex Willette, said that while the outcome was still far from certain, the governor was in high spirits.
“He’s been seeing the results and sees he’s at 50 percent, and he’s hoping we can stick at about 50 percent. He’s very happy, very optimistic,” Willette said.
Republican activists were pleased by close results in Biddeford, where Michaud was expected to win with a large margin, and with LePage’s victory in Jay, a mill town that many would have expected to go to Michaud, a former millworker.
Willette said LePage got a boost from higher than expected turnout, which he attributed to a bear hunting referendum that energized hunters and sportsmen, two blocs in LePage’s base.
But, he said, “the turnout doesn’t matter as much as the governor’s message of more jobs, moving the economy in a better direction. That resonated with voters, and they will give him another four years tonight.”
During the campaign, LePage promised to continue trimming state budgets, paying off debt and cutting Maine’s welfare rolls. The governor also pledged to pursue right-to-work legislation in a second term in office, a move that would hobble Maine’s unions — one of the governor’s chief political adversaries.
Michaud campaigned on a promise to expand Medicaid coverage to about 70,000 low-income Mainers under the Affordable Care Act, a move LePage vetoed five times. He also emphasized the need to bolster Maine’s struggling manufacturing sector and a plan for the state to pay the tuition of sophomores at Maine’s public universities and colleges. Michaud said that plan would help more students graduate from college.
Cutler also said he’d expand Medicaid, but he focused most of his campaign’s attention on a tax reform plan that would reduce local property taxes and increase education funding by hiking the state’s sales tax.
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BDN State House Bureau Chief Christopher Cousins in Portland and Sun Journal State Politics Editor Scott Thistle in Lewiston contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.