Given Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s unpopularity (polls rank him one of the least popular governors in the country), it’s no surprise the political sharks are circling the Blaine House because they smell blood in the water.
Eliot Cutler, an independent who was narrowly defeated by LePage in 2010, was essentially running for re-election from the second his loss was certified. But Democrats aren’t ceding the left-of-center territory to Cutler. First there was the speculation about former Gov. John Baldacci taking a look at returning to the Blaine House and now it’s U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud eyeing a run.
Insiders say Baldacci informed Michaud and 1st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, also a Democrat, that if they were taking a pass on the race he would run. And now that Michaud, who was Senate president before winning his House seat in 2002, says he might just want to return to state politics, word is Baldacci could return to his old seat in the 2nd District.
But all this potential aside, here are few things to keep in mind about what happened in 2010 and the current lay of the land.
LePage eked out a victory in his gubernatorial bid with about 38 percent of the vote thanks to the dynamic between Cutler and Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell. Cutler came in second with 36 percent, making him the logical top rival for LePage, right?
Not so much.
Polling up until the last couple weeks of the race had Mitchell and Cutler in close proximity but voters at the last minute – desperate to beat the ever more controversial LePage – broke heavily for Cutler. Political strategists on both sides of the aisle agree this is because it seemed like Cutler had the best chance to win (he was also aided by a timely assist from popular former governor-turned-U.S. Sen. Angus King, also an independent).
That “support” for Cutler – who has maintained a home in Cape Elizabeth over the years but was largely disconnected from Maine throughout his professional career – wasn’t solid. The same Public Policy Polling survey that highlights LePage’s disapproval shows 36 percent of those polled have no opinion of Cutler. That’s pretty striking for a guy who allegedly ran a top statewide campaign just a couple years ago.
So there’s room for a strong Democrat to launch a viable bid for the Blaine House. And while many may look at the 2012 Senate race won by King as another example of a Cutler advantage, it’s pretty clear the two are not equal in the eyes of Maine voters despite their “independent” affiliation.
Conventional wisdom is that Democrats running statewide in Maine have a better chance if they have a foothold in the wilder (it’s more fun to say than ‘more conservative’), sprawling 2nd District. There’s no reason to doubt that adage in the case of Michaud. He’s followed a winning model of staying connected to the movers and shakers in his district and plucked out relevant issues to focus on while in office (veteran care and trade). And he’s far more popular than Baldacci.
None of this guarantees anyone success. But taking for granted either an automatic re-election for LePage if Cutler and a strong Democrat run because they would split the vote enough to let him slip in the backdoor or a Cutler victory based on his past performance would be silly.