Republican gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody shares an awkward handshake with his Democratic rival Janet Mills after a debate in Portland on Thursday night.

PORTLAND, Maine — In the last debate of the 2018 Maine gubernatorial race, Democrat Janet Mills looked to sow doubt among women about Republican Shawn Moody, while he asked her to apologize for an attack ad, and independent Terry Hayes defended her often-reproached run.

The three candidates in the race to replace Gov. Paul LePage — whose eventful tenure hangs over the race on policy and politics — had their liveliest debate of the cycle on Thursday as they looked to make their final cases to Maine voters ahead of Tuesday’s election.

More than a dozen previous debates have been marked largely by cordiality. That changed on Thursday at a debate hosted by WGME and the Bangor Daily News amid a week of escalating attacks in TV ads between the party candidates and their allies.

For the first time in the campaign, Mills, the attorney general, mentioned a 2006 settlement between Moody’s eponymous collision center chain and a former employee. The employee alleged he fired her while she was on maternity leave because he doubted she could “do the job” with a baby. Moody has denied the claim, repeatedly saying he cannot share details because of a nondisclosure agreement related to a court settlement with the woman.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Mills’ jab came in response to a question about a Maine Republican Party ad hitting her for a January plea deal allowing a former sheriff’s deputy to avoid jail time after being accused of sex crimes against teenagers. It leaves out that the deputy had already been acquitted of two charges by a jury, which deadlocked on 20 others.

Moody’s campaign has called the gender discrimination allegation against him false, and he has said he settled at the request of an insurer. But the Mills ad says he “fired a woman just for having a baby” after noting Moody’s anti-abortion stance and saying he is “lying about me to cover up what he’s really about.”

During the debate, Moody looked to make a distinction between ads paid for by campaigns and outside groups, and said Mills attacked his “personal credibility” and “that’s not right.”

“The attacks that are coming in against you and me and Terry are done from outside channels,” he said. “You know it and I think you ought to apologize.”

Mills responded by saying that Moody should ask Republicans to remove the ad against her, saying she would “put my record up against anybody’s when it comes to protecting women.

“One of the issues is, ‘Who’s going to be out there protecting the rights of women?’” she said. “I think it’s fair game to talk about women’s issues, whether it’s choice or discrimination matters and other matters.”

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Hayes, the state treasurer and a former Democratic legislator, pointed to those ads as a “diversion and distraction” that holds the state back “and that’s why we need an independent governor,” but her most impassioned moment was a defense of her candidacy.

The independent hasn’t cracked double-digits in any public poll of the race so far. It has only amplified the months-old sentiment from Democrats who worry that she could spoil the race for Mills in favor of Moody in a race that won’t be decided by ranked-choice voting.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

During a segment of the debate in which candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, Hayes held up a mailer from Mills saying a vote for Hayes is no different than a vote for Moody. She said it assumes Mills “has a right to a pool of votes.”

Mills said she wouldn’t raise taxes on Mainers in her first two-year budget as governor, while Moody was vague in his answer on taxes, saying he wanted to reduce taxes and spending while disagreeing with a sales tax broadening that LePage has backed. Hayes touted her plan to cut income tax while broadening the sales tax base.

For a roundup of Maine political news, click here for the Daily Brief. Click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...