PORTLAND, Maine — According to Howie Carr, the path to victory for Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election bid goes through one man: independent candidate Eliot Cutler.
That was the thrust of both opening and closing remarks by the Portland native turned conservative radio talk-show host, speaking Saturday morning to the Cumberland County Republican Convention at the Westbrook Middle School.
“I really hope that as you go through the next few months, if you have ‘moonbat’ friends, you really should talk up Eliot Cutler,” said Carr in the beginning of his keynote speech. “I think it’s really important, given the demographics of the state, to keep Eliot Cutler a viable option.”
The radio talk-show host was alluding to the conventional political wisdom that Cutler — who came a close second to LePage in 2010’s gubernatorial race — will siphon votes from six-term U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrat’s presumptive nominee for the Blaine House.
Carr played more the role of stand-up comedian than political organizer as he lambasted the likes of President Barack Obama, Maine’s newspapers and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
But as his speech wound down, he turned again to Cutler, saying: “This is a good year for Maine, and again, don’t forget Eliot Cutler. He helped Paul LePage in 2010.”
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant responded to Carr’s comments, saying he knew the party would need to be “vigilant” of GOP strategies to win by division.
“It’s been clear for some time that Cutler’s campaign is struggling to find some relevance in Maine, and even Paul LePage knows at this time that he needs to do something to prop [Cutler] up,” Grant said. “If Cutler were strong at this point, LePage wouldn’t need his people urging Republicans to tell their progressive friends to support Eliot.”
It’s a sentiment not shared by the LePage campaign, who on Saturday said the governor will be propelled to victory by his wide support, not through Election Day arithmetic, and that the entertainer does not speak for the governor or his campaign.
“Howie Carr is a popular entertainer, author and registered voter in Wellesley, Mass.,” said LePage’s de facto campaign chief, Brent Littlefield. “How liberals Michael Michaud and Eliot Cutler fare in their personal quest for a title has no impact on Gov. Paul LePage’s wide support from Maine people who appreciate his work creating jobs, lowering taxes and paying off the hospital debt.”
At the heart of Carr’s statements is the assumption among Maine’s political operatives and observers that LePage cannot win an election by pursuing 51 percent of the vote, and thus is benefited by a three-way race. A Critical Insights survey last fall showed that more than half of those polled disapprove of the job LePage has done in office. That figure has been fairly constant since LePage was elected.
If that’s the case, LePage must seek to divide the vote between Cutler and Michaud while retaining and energizing his base — the roughly 38 percent who elected him in 2010 and who seem to have stuck with him for his first three years in office.
Of course, that take on the election cuts both ways: Knowing that LePage’s base can likely be counted on to stay with the governor, Michaud and Cutler both need to make the other as irrelevant as possible if either is going to win. In recent months, the two candidates have been engaging in what some have called a “primary-like” campaign battle.
In the latest salvo, Cutler this week chided Michaud from the right, calling the Democrat’s newly unveiled economic platform a “big-government, big-spending” approach to policymaking. He also accused Michaud of being beholden to “the unions and corporate special interests who have fueled his political career.”
On Saturday, Cutler’s communications director, Crystal Canney, called Carr’s comments “more of the same old partisan politics,” and she said Mainers of all political stripes are backing Cutler.
“Maine people are concluding that he’s a far better choice than a governor who has lost the respect of Maine people or a professional politician obligated to special interests,” she said. “Eliot’s roots are in Maine. He is a successful business person who has worked around the world solving problems, he’s an experienced budget expert, and he helped Ed Muskie write the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Maine people understand and respect these credentials.”
Littlefield said Saturday that Cutler has never played into LePage’s election chances, and that internal polling throughout the 2010 campaign predicted the governor’s victory regardless of how many candidates were in the race.
Carr was one of several speakers who rallied the party Saturday ahead of upcoming elections in November. The mood was hopeful, as party operatives and elected officials stressed the importance of local party activists and praised LePage, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and GOP lawmakers in Augusta.
Several speakers, including House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said the presence of Collins and LePage at the top of the ballot in November could have trickle-down effects on other Republicans running for office in Maine.
“We have a great opportunity this cycle with Susan Collins on top of the ticket,” said Fredette, who was busy Saturday signing up Republicans to run for office in the heavily blue Cumberland County. “It puts us in a position to win the House and the Senate.”
Republican lawmakers also urged party activists to take up the banner against Medicaid expansion, the top priority for legislative Democrats this session. Democrats say the expansion will save the state hundreds of billions of dollars while providing MaineCare to roughly 70,000 low-income Mainers. The GOP and, most notably, LePage, point out that MaineCare already eats up 25 percent of general fund spending and say expansion will only “cannibalize” other government services.
Sen. Jim Hamper, R-Oxford, a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he expects a compromise expansion bill by two moderate GOP senators to be presented to lawmakers this week.
“Medicaid expansion is simply going to bury you in taxes,” Hamper said. “… You need to bury [Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland,] in emails.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.