It’s official. With Election Day just four days away, the Maine Democratic Party is in full panic mode.

How else can you explain this snarky snippet, framed around the red star from the People’s Republic of China’s flag and a mock “Help Wanted” ad printed in what looks like Chinese: “Eliot Cutler’s advice to Mainers looking for a job Learn Chinese.”

Or this, complete with one photo of oil-covered seabirds and another of pristine Portland Head Light: “The Exxon Valdez in Alaska The BP Spill in Louisiana With Eliot Cutler as Governor — Maine could be next.”

Or this, next to a fortune cookie with a “fortune” that warns, “Maine jobs could go to China”: As recently as this summer, while campaigning for Governor, Cutler welcomed to Maine a group of Chinese businessmen promoting Chinese involvement in our economy.”

Long after the smoke clears from this rough-and-tumble gubernatorial election, political scientists will look back at these three mailers, sent out in recent days by the Maine Democratic Party, as telltale signs of a political apparatus in free fall.

Sure, the fliers came not from Democratic hopeful Libby Mitchell’s campaign, but from state party operatives who by law must maintain an arms-length relationship with the candidate. (The same operatives who, along with Mitchell, insisted for months that this was a two-way race between her and Republican Paul LePage — until suddenly it wasn’t.)

But this much is clear as LePage leads the race to the finish line: Cutler’s poll numbers are going up, while Mitchell’s are going down. Hence the man who was once best ignored by the Democrats finds himself squarely in their cross hairs.

“I didn’t think we have people that low involved in Maine politics,” Cutler said Wednesday in a brief interview between campaign stops. “I’m surprised and saddened that that is the case, because the people who are doing this know they are lies.”

Cutler, who has yet to directly attack Mitchell or LePage in his advertising, might appear almost quaint to some as he refuses, even now, to start giving as good as he’s getting. But his refusal to go negative, he insists, is non-negotiable — and not just because “I’d be ashamed of myself if I stooped to that level.”

“It’s politically stupid,” Cutler said of the Democrats’ last-minute barrage. “People all over Maine are doing what I hoped they would do, which is reject this.”

Meet Gillian Schair of Portland. She and her husband, Seth Rigoletti, both longtime Democrats, had decided before the fliers landed in their mailbox that they would vote for Cutler because, as Schair put it, “he’s the best candidate by far.”

That said, they found the Democratic mailers so offensive that they fired off an e-mail to Arden Manning, the Maine Democratic Party’s Victory 2010 campaign manager.

“We try to teach our children, ages 10 and 6, to speak truthfully, to stand up for what they believe in and to respect others,” Schair and Rigoletti wrote. “While we realize that attack ads and fear mongering work in many cases, this is one in which it has failed miserably.”

Contacted Thursday, Schair said she and her husband have yet to receive a response from the party, which, even now, they support in all races but the one for governor.

Schair won’t soon forget those mailers, which she found “incredibly xenophobic, untrue and repulsive.”

All of which raises a question at a time when an overwhelming majority of voters beg for an end to all the electoral sniping: Why, if polls consistently show that people of all political stripes detest negative campaign advertising, do the negative ads keep coming?

“Because it works,” replied Michael Franz, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College and co-author of the book “Campaign Advertising and American Democracy.”

“Basically, even though you’re seeing the ad and you’re not necessarily liking it, it’s still leaving an impression on you,” Franz said. “You hate watching the ads, but you’re left with this nugget of information.”

The challenge for the ads’ creators, Franz said, is to gauge just how far they can go.

“You have to walk this fine line between airing a memorable ad that people are going to use to make a judgment, but not so negative that people are going to end up disliking you as a result,” he said. “I could probably make a lot of money if I could find that point.”

Sam Spencer, who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being Cutler’s godson and a Maine representative on the Democratic National Committee, harbors no doubt that point has been passed.

In a statement released Wednesday, Spencer noted that his party position prevents him from supporting Cutler’s campaign. But the three mailers, he said, “are absurd and indefensible. They are fundamentally dishonest.”

And, he added, “Such tactics are unworthy of the Democratic Party I believe in. I cannot stand by and implicitly support them.”

And what do the Democrats have to say about all this?

Party campaign manager Manning said Thursday that the fliers were an “eye-catching” and “tongue-in-cheek” attempt to call attention to work that Cutler did in China as a lawyer for the Washington, D.C., firm Akin Gump.

Cries of foul notwithstanding, Manning said, “we stand by the mailings.”

No surprise there. But perhaps they shouldn’t stand too close.

Noted Schair, the loyal-but-livid Democrat, “I think this one has boomeranged.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com