June 16, 2010

GEORGE SMITH:: Gov. Cutler? A possibility, given major-party nominees

Conventional wisdom already has elected Independent Eliot Cutler Maine’s next governor.

 A surprising number of insiders believe Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell — although strong in their respective party primaries — are weak candidates for November’s general election.

 I heard this repeatedly in the run-up to the June 8 primary. And even though both LePage and Mitchell won surprisingly strong and impressive primary victories against large fields of capable opponents, many still believe they’ll flop in November.

 The early line on this race reports LePage too conservative and subject to gaffes caused by his outspoken and frank responses to questions, and Mitchell too liberal and too long in state government, the source of much angst and anger amongst voters.

 Indeed, according to this newspaper’s reporter Susan Cover, Cutler already has called LePage and Mitchell the most extreme examples of their parties.

 Cutler, with significant financial resources and a bipartisan array of key supporters, is poised to pick up the pieces of the bruising party primaries.

 Yes, I know that Mitchell’s three opponents showed up two days after the primary and endorsed her candidacy. And LePage’s opponents are likely to do the same soon.

 But trust me, many are licking their wounds, and Republican Peter Mills offered the most honest and illuminating comments, stating plainly that he was not ready to support LePage until he heard more about his plans for the state.

 The views of these two men are so divergent that it’s difficult to imagine that Mills will be able to endorse Le-Page.

 It’s very unlikely that any of the party primary losers will spend either their time or money to elect the candidates who defeated them. I don’t expect any to jump on the Cutler bus, but that is a possibility, particularly with Mills.

 Cutler supported Mills for governor four years ago. Many people still think that if Mills had won the Republican primary in 2006, he would have beaten Gov. John Baldacci. Chandler Woodcock, the Republican nominee in 2006, was judged by many as too conservative.

 It would be a mistake, however, to find many comparisons between Woodcock and LePage or between the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial races.

 LePage has a strong record of accomplishment in local government and business, and great appeal to Franco voters. I would be astonished if Democrats are able to trash LePage in TV ads, as they did Woodcock.

 But there is the possibility that the mayor of Waterville’s often-sharp comments may be turned against him as the campaign progresses. He’ll need to continue to define himself to voters and stay ahead of any negative ads launched by his opponents.

 Mitchell has her own problems. She supported the tax reform proposal that voters overwhelmingly repealed on June 10. She’ll need to distance herself quickly from that proposal, probably by offering her own tax reform plan.

 She’s also up against history. Maine voters have not elected two Democratic governors back to back in 150 years. And all across the country, those who have been serving in government are not faring well.

 Finally, she’s running as a clean election candidate with no more than $1.2 million available, against two opponents likely to have much more than that. Cutler especially is thought to be ready to spend his own personal wealth on his campaign.

 Mitchell, however, has many strengths, including the possibility of being the first woman to serve as governor of Maine. There are many voters — both men and women — who find this attractive.

 Mitchell also is tenacious, having risen to the top of a political system dominated by men, and will effectively rally every Democratic constituency, including many who are worried about losing services and programs.

 This may be the most interesting campaign we’ve seen in decades, with Mitchell’s government experience and sincere concern about education and human services against LePage’s strong anti-government message and determination to bring state government to heel.

 And then there is Cutler, still unknown to most voters. He is probably studying the campaign of our last independent governor, Angus King.

 While King’s Republican opponent, Susan Collins, fought with some of the more conservative elements of her party during the summer, King stole her Republican constituency.

 Cutler may be able to drive a wedge between the two segments of Maine Republicans — the conservative, tea party folks and the more liberal, Peter Mills wing. If he does, that may be all the traction he needs to emerge victorious in November.

 That’s not conventional wisdom — at least not yet. But it’s a real possibility.   

 

 George Smith is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He lives in Mount Vernon and can be reached at george@samcef.org.

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