AUGUSTA — Independent Eliot Cutler, who lost a tight race to Republican Gov. Paul LePage in 2010, has officially taken the first step toward running for the Blaine House in 2014.
The Cape Elizabeth lawyer’s move raises the prospect of another three-way gubernatorial race, a scenario that saw LePage win election in 2010 with 38 percent of the vote, ahead of Cutler and the Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Mitchell.
Cutler’s campaign committee filing appeared on the Maine Ethics Commission’s website Thursday afternoon.
That means Cutler can now start to raise money for his potential bid, but he isn’t officially running for governor.
“He’ll be spending the next few months traveling around the state, meeting with people, reconnecting with people from last time, really making sure the support is there for another run,” said Cutler spokesman Ted O’Meara, who said if all goes well, Cutler will formally announce he’s running in the late summer or early fall of this year.
Cutler, who lost to LePage in 2010 by less than 10,000 votes and has kept a high profile ever since, teased the announcement to the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday, responding to rumors that he was forming his campaign committee by confirming that he would “do something” this week relating to his possible candidacy.
After Thursday’s announcement, attacks came from Cutler’s right and left.
“This is the worst-kept secret in the history of Maine politics,” said Brent Littlefield, a political consultant involved in LePage’s reelection committee.
He said Cutler has spent a lot of time and money in running for the Blaine House since he lost to the governor.
In a news release, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said that soon, “a strong candidate will emerge who Democrats will unite around. That candidate certainly won’t be Eliot Cutler.”
Recent poll numbers, suggesting LePage has an edge in a three-candidate race but not a two-candidate one, have fueled earlier-than-usual speculation about potential hopefuls’ odds.
On Tuesday, a poll from Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based firm seen by many as Democratic-leaning, showed Cutler was more popular overall than LePage: It said Cutler had an eight-point edge if he and LePage were the only two candidates.
But PPP said Cutler had a tough path to victory with LePage and a Democrat in the race, which seems most likely.
In hypothetical matchups between LePage and five Democrats, including former Gov. John Baldacci and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, Cutler never gained more than 32 percent of those polled.
LePage won every PPP scenario by at least five percentage points, and Cutler finished third when Pingree and Michaud — likely Democrats’ ideal candidates, were in the mix. Neither Pingree nor Michaud have expressed interest or ruled out running.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and other media outlets.
Littlefield questioned bias in the poll, as well as its automated methodology, and O’Meara urged observers not to take too much stock in such an early poll.
“Everything that we’ve seen is very encouraging,” O’Meara said. “There continues to be a lot of support for him making another run.”
Baldacci, who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, said recently he is considering running for governor in 2014, in part because of the “negativism” permeating the political climate.
On Thursday, Baldacci appeared on Portland radio station WGAN, insinuating that the PPP poll results showed Cutler should not enter the race because it’s “very clear” LePage has the edge in a three-person race.
“Why should somebody who’s going to come in as an independent, or somebody who claims to be an independent, get into the race and then end up being a loser anyways?” Baldacci said.
“Those people who want to get into the race on top of the established parties ought to stop and think: Are they going to win the race or are they going in as a spoiler in the race?”
O’Meara said Baldacci’s words signaled the former governor’s “sense of entitlement” relating to the two major political parties, saying Baldacci should ask himself the same question, since Mitchell could be considered the 2010 “spoiler.”
O’Meara also cited Cutler’s last showing and the 2012 election of U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, as proof that independents in Maine are strong.
“Everybody has a right to run and I think Eliot proved in 2010 that he was a serious, formidable candidate,” O’Meara said.
“Maine, in particular, is a state where we have shown independents can do very well.”
State House Bureau reporter Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at