PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Sen. Angus King endorsed fellow independent Eliot Cutler in this year’s gubernatorial race Monday morning at a news conference in Portland.

The two independents emphasized Cutler’s business pedigree, and the advantages they said an independent can have as the top elected official in the state, such as the ability to draw from the best both parties have to offer without having to swear allegiance to either.

They also addressed the question of strategic voting, which has plagued Cutler’s campaign for months, during Monday morning’s conference at Kepware Technologies.

Cutler currently lags far behind in the polls, which show a dead heat between the partisan front-runners, Republican incumbent Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. The poll-tracking website Real Clear Politics lists Maine’s gubernatorial election as a “toss up.”

King, one of Maine’s most popular politicians and a former two-term governor, said that Maine voters need to choose the best candidate for the job, regardless of political party or whatever perceived chance of winning the candidate has three months before Election Day.

“What people have to cross over is this idea of trying to think of all the political angles,” King said. “If the people of Maine look at these candidates and say, ‘Who will make the best governor, who has the ideas, who has the best thinking?’ — Eliot wins. That’s why I believe he’s going to. That’s the calculation.”

Many observers of this year’s gubernatorial race believe a stronger showing by Cutler would come at Michaud’s expense. That line of thought holds that the stronger Cutler performs on Election Day, the more likely LePage is to win. It’s a narrative that bolsters both parties, but Cutler said voters deserve a third way.

“The choice between Mr. Michaud and Mr. LePage, both of whom have their qualities, is a choice that I don’t want any Maine voter to have to make,” Cutler said. “… I’m really tired of hearing the phrase ‘splitting the vote.’ I prefer the phrase ‘combining votes.’ That’s what we’re all about, that’s what Angus is all about, and that’s what the people of Maine need now. Two-thirds of people in this state haven’t decided who they’re going to vote for in November. That is an opportunity that I embrace.”

The idea that LePage’s victory depends on Cutler siphoning votes from Michaud was reinforced Monday by GOP insiders, who moved quickly to establish Cutler as cut from the same mold as Michaud, and hence another choice for Democrats to vote for in November.

LePage’s chief political strategist, Brent Littlefield, noted to reporters that both Cutler and King are former Democratic staffers in Washington, D.C., and Maine Republican Party spokesman David Sorensen in a written statement called it“striking” that King, who caucuses with Democrats, would endorse Cutler rather than Michaud.

Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for Michaud’s campaign, said King’s endorsement didn’t come as a surprise. She said Michaud has had a “good working relationship” with King, and will continue to throughout the remainder of his term in Congress and in the Blaine House. She said Republican efforts to conflate Michaud and Cutler were “a silly attempt to distract from Gov. LePage’s nearly four years of failed leadership.”

King endorsed Cutler in 2010, when he surged late in the race for the Blaine House, and Cutler stumped for King during the later’s 2012 Senate campaign.

Many have attributed part of Cutler’s sharp rise in support late in the 2010 election cycle to King’s endorsement, which came just days before Election Day. Cutler eventually placed second to LePage, but some observers have posited that Cutler could have wrested eventual victory from the Republican had King endorsed earlier.

King said that he’s skeptical of the ability of any one politician to move votes, but that he was excited at the chance to support Cutler earlier in the campaign than he did four years ago.

The senator also emphasized that Maine has twice elected independent governors, himself in 1994 and Jim Longley 20 years prior. He said that he and Longley were elected at times when voters were fed up with partisanship and looking for someone who could end gridlock.

“Here we are, 20 years later, and we have the opportunity to do it again, for many of the same reasons,” King said. “The reasons of partisanship, of division, of finger-pointing and blame casting. That’s not what we need to move this country forward.”

Cutler said too many Mainers were struggling to get by “in a state where partisan politics have failed us.”

“If Mainers elect me as governor, I promise to bring good, sensible government back to the state of Maine,” he said. “Good government requires leadership that is both strong and collaborative, of the sort that Angus provided, and that I will provide again.”

The endorsement from an individual politician may not translate into the sort of grassroots support that comes from member-driven organizations such as labor unions or issue-advocacy groups. But the support of a popular figure like King could send a signal to donors. Cutler campaign appearances from King, if they come, could bring additional attention to the independent’s campaign, which may translate to support from crucial undecided voters.

Cutler and King planned a second event to herald the endorsement in Bangor on Monday afternoon.

Earlier this year, King endorsed Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ re-election bid.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...