November 20, 2012

Leery of third-place pattern, Democrats already have eyes on Blaine House

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Just two weeks after the 2012 election, Maine Democrats are already talking about the next one, specifically the 2014 race for governor.

Their message? Third place is not an option.

"The Democratic Party is going to run a serious, well-financed campaign," said state party chairman Ben Grant. "We're not backing down from any challenge, whether it comes from (Gov.) Paul LePage or Eliot Cutler," the presumed independent candidate.

Inherent in such a declaration is the admission that Democrats settled for third in this year's U.S. Senate race and that a similar finish in the 2014 gubernatorial contest is a possibility.

The party's candidates scored significant electoral victories this year, keeping both of Maine's congressional seats and taking back the Legislature after losing it in 2010. Nonetheless, big challenges loom in a governor's race that could replicate factors that left Democrats third in the past two statewide elections.

"They have to be really nervous," said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. "If you come in third place in three elections in a row, that is not good."

Grant is acutely aware of the dynamics, which center on the possibility -- if not likelihood -- that Cutler, who finished second in 2010, will run for governor again. It's why Grant, emboldened by the legislative victories, is talking up 2014 now and assuring party loyalists and opponents that Democrats will invest heavily in the race.

Grant is pinning the party's hopes on its stars or a meteoric rise by lesser-known candidates. He also is urging the newly elected Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to resist the urge to joust with a Republican governor who often appears to spoil for a fight.

"I think Mainers want to see adults in Augusta," Grant said. "I don't think anyone is interested in two years of mudslinging, and I don't think our party is going to do that."

Democrats have spent the past two years blasting Le- Page and, in some instances, fundraising off his controversial statements. Grant said tempering that criticism is the "right thing to do."

"It's important for us to work on our own agenda and show people on an ideas level what we're trying to do," he said. "The governor's actions will speak for themselves."

There's also a political calculation: Two years of gridlock and sparring with LePage will bolster the message advanced by Cutler and other independents that the two-party system is the problem.

U.S. Sen.-elect Angus King made hyper-partisanship the staple of his campaign this year, and Cutler did the same in 2010.

Cutler, of Cape Elizabeth, has not announced his 2014 candidacy but has maintained a high profile since finishing a close second to LePage in 2010.

Soon after the 2010 election, Cutler established OneMaine, a group promoting independent candidates and centrist politics. He also served on the board of directors of Americans Elect, the national group that was established to put an independent presidential ticket on the 2012 ballot but later bought campaign ads on King's behalf.

Brewer, the UMaine professor, said he believes that Cutler will run in 2014. His campaign apparatus is in place with OneMaine. A divisive political climate in Augusta could make another run even more enticing.

"You can't definitely say that the next two years is going to be nothing but fights over vetoes and really nasty Maine politics, but you can certainly make the case that that's how it's going to go," Brewer said. "If it goes that way, that just makes it even easier for Cutler to run as this outsider candidate, this pragmatic person that's going to force both sides to get things done for the greater good."

(Continued on page 2)

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