LEWISTON, Maine — The battle over abortion is heating up again in the Maine governor’s race, after independent candidate Eliot Cutler said he would support allowing MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to cover the cost of abortion services for women eligible for the government-sponsored health care program.

Cutler said Wednesday it’s a position he has long held, but he said the Maine media hasn’t fully picked up on it.

He also said his opponents in the race, incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, either opposed abortion outright or changed their position on the issue over time.

Brent Littlefield, a spokesman for LePage’s re-election campaign, said Thursday that the governor has been steadfastly opposed to “taxpayer-funded abortion.”

Michaud has changed his position on the issue — or “evolved” on it — according to his supporters. Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said Wednesday that he, too, would support public funding of abortion services for Medicaid-eligible women.

It’s the latest shift to a “pro-choice” footing for Michaud, who was first elected to Congress as a “pro-life” candidate in 2002.

In 2009, Michaud was among a group of Democrats in the U.S. House to join with Republicans to support an amendment to the landmark Affordable Care Act, which has come to be known as Obamacare, that prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion.

Reinholt said Michaud voted for the amendment, known as the Stupak-Pitts amendment, only to ensure the ACA wouldn’t be defeated by House Republicans. The vote on the amendment was never close; it passed in the House 240-194.

This year, Michaud also received endorsements from several high-profile pro-choice organizations, including the political arm of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Reinholt also notes that, while Cutler and LePage can be critical about Michaud’s changing or evolving views on abortion over a long legislative career, neither of the other two candidates has ever cast a vote on abortion.

“Mike discussed this issue at length with both Planned Parenthood and NARAL during their endorsement interviews, and he was proud to receive their support because they know they can trust him to stand up for a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions,” Reinholt said. “Mike is the only candidate in this race who has ever voted to protect women’s reproductive rights. That includes low-income women who depend on public funding for their care.”

Reinholt also said the real issue for Michaud isn’t just about supporting abortion rights, but improving access to family planning to help reduce unintended pregnancies.

“Mike would restore the critical funding to family planning services that Gov. LePage cut last year and pass the Women’s Health Initiative he vetoed,” Reinholt said.

Michaud was unavailable to discuss the issue with the Sun Journal on Thursday because he was attending a bill-signing ceremony at the White House with President Barack Obama.

Fifteen states now cover abortions with their Medicaid-based programs.

Cutler said he has maintained the same position on publicly funded abortion services for Medicaid recipients for years and first made it public in this campaign in October 2013. He said Michaud’s support of Stupak-Pitts indicates Michaud only supports abortion for those who can afford it.

“I draw the distinction here between Michaud and me, because he also believes — to the extent he believes now in the availability of reproductive right services including abortions — he believes that right only extends to affluent women,” Cutler said. “He doesn’t believe it extends to poor women. I do.”

Cutler points to Michaud’s votes on the issue in Maine and Washington.

“He’s never said he supports MaineCare funding,” Cutler said. “There’s a real difference here between us on this issue.”

LePage’s campaign said the governor consistently has been opposed to allowing “taxpayer-funded abortions.”

LePage has fairly consistently said he is opposed to abortion except in the cases of rape or incest, or in cases where the procedure is necessary to save the life of the mother.

Littlefield said Michaud’s voting record is as unclear as his public statements on the issue.

He also said Thursday that Michaud is changing his position on issues that help him with more liberal voters in more urban and populous southern Maine, but where he ultimately stands on abortion is still difficult to decipher.

“We know clearly where Paul LePage is on this issue, ” Littlefield said. “He doesn’t support taxpayer-funded abortion. But Mike Michaud, he’s like the weather vanes that you see on old barns all across Maine. You never know which way it’s going to point unless you can guess where the wind is blowing.”

But Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said Michaud’s evolution on abortion hasn’t been as dramatic as his opponents like to point out.

“Mike Michaud has never been as purely pro-life as Paul LePage,” Melcher said in an email to the Sun Journal. “You don’t see him at Hands Around The Capitol, or calling for a Human Life Amendment.”

Melcher said it’s true Michaud was more, “pro-life” than most Democrats in Maine, but voters who are picking a candidate on the issue of abortion were probably already going to vote for LePage.

“Michaud isn’t making a 180 degree turn here — more like a 90 degree turn,” Melcher said.

He said a danger for Michaud in his shifting stance on the issue over the years “opens him up to charges that he’s an opportunistic flip-flopper.”

Michaud, once considered a fiscally conservative “blue dog Democrat” also could find himself fending off charges he’s become a true, “tax and spend” liberal for supporting expanding services under the taxpayer funded Medicaid program, Melcher said.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.