Could Maine Re-Elect Its Wingnut Guv?

It didn’t take long for Republican Governor Paul LePage to start alienating his voters in Maine but he may be spared by a split in the electorate.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Paul LePage is the incumbent governor of Maine; he struggles to break 40 percent in opinion polls or go a single day without making an outrageous comment. But the one-term Republican could still be spared from rejection. He is lucky enough to be facing two strong opponents, Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud and Independent Eliot Cutler, who are expected to split the anti-LePage vote in November.

The controversial chief executive of the Pine Tree State got off to an early start when, less than two weeks after his inauguration in 2011, the Maine governor proclaimed on the eve of Martin Luther King Day that the Maine NAACP could “kiss my butt.” Since then, notable LePage controversies have included saying that President Obama “hates white people” and a public attack on a Democratic state senator who “claims to be for the people but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” He’s rounded all this off by repeatedly meeting with a group labeled domestic terrorists by the FBI. But while all of this has brought him a significant number of vocal detractors, there are still many Mainers who admire LePage’s rather unsubtle style.

Democrats are confident that they can finally defeat LePage, who won with only 38 percent of the vote in another three-way race in 2010. In that election Cutler, who describes himself as “fiscally prudent” and “a social progressive or moderate,” finished a close second as support for the Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell plummeted as Election Day approached. This year, Democrats feel far better about Michaud, a moderate congressman who came out as gay last year. Michaud has been a solid fundraiser while Cutler’s poll numbers have been trending downward in recent months. There’s also the hope that Michaud, whose congressional district constituted the more conservative and rural parts of the state, will have bipartisan appeal.

Cutler dismissed these Democratic hopes and told The Daily Beast he was relaxed about his chances. “I feel a whole lot better than I did four years ago,” he said.

If elected, Cutler, who was once an aide to the Democratic senator, Edmund Muskie, would become the state’s third independent governor in the past four decades. He said he had more money, better polling data and better numbers than last time and he is facing “a Democrat who is as vulnerable as the one they nominated four years ago and a governor who is a failure.”

In Cutler’s opinion, voters in a three-way race think tactically for months in the lead-up to voting. They may default to their party’s candidate in early polling, but when “they are confronted with a real choice ... they will generally break towards a viable Independent candidate in Maine.”

His biggest concern was that many voters would cast their ballots early. Cutler argued that Democrats and Republicans wanted Mainers to “vote first and ask questions later” and his goal was to discourage voters from casting votes until after the debates are held in mid-October.

The independent candidate, who has loaned $400,000 to his campaign, also criticized Michaud for being “a hostage to his donors” and went after his Democratic rival for taking contributions from “special interest PACs” in Congress. He detailed the unacceptable groups like the NRA, big sugar and Monsanto, from which Michaud had taken donations from. In contrast, he simply described LePage as “a hostage to his ideology.”

While one connected Maine Republican pointed out there are quite a few Cutler voters who have LePage as their second choice, the race is still a referendum on the incumbent. And, although polls show Cutler doing five percentage points better than Michaud in a head to head race against LePage, that’s a theoretical situation. Not the reality of the three-way race that Mainers face in November. While Cutler argues that the existing political parties will begin to collapse, that new era is not going to arrive by Election Day. In the meantime, the apparent anti-LePage majority of Maine voters will have to make some very tough decisions.