PORTLAND – For the past decade, Rep. Mike Michaud has represented the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River, a conservative region where a candidate’s rural roots and career in the paper mills score points with many voters.
But if Michaud decides to run for governor, the self-declared “Blue Dog Democrat” will have to win over voters in Maine’s decidedly left-leaning southern congressional district. It’s a path that many statewide candidates from rural Maine have tread before Michaud, who created an “exploratory committee” this week to gauge his support for a gubernatorial run.
Michaud’s road to the Blaine House would be complicated by the fact that he would have to compete for votes with Eliot Cutler, an independent from Cape Elizabeth who narrowly lost to Republican Paul LePage in 2010.
So could Michaud have trouble with southern Maine’s liberals and progressives?
Like most political observers in Maine, Brian Duff, an associate professor of political science at the University of New England, said it is far too early to predict who would win a three-way race involving Michaud, Cutler and LePage. But Duff doesn’t believe Michaud will have problems among hard-core southern Maine Democrats.
“The only problem Mike Michaud would have in the 1st District would be from people attacking him from the left. And unless he gets in some sort of a competitive primary, there is just no situation where that is going to happen,” Duff said. “I think the Democratic Party is going to rally around him because this is sort of a do-or-die race for the Democrats in the state of Maine.”
Like many young men of his generation in the Millinocket area, Michaud graduated from high school and followed his father into the Great Northern Paper mill.
He spent nearly 30 years in the mill and remains a card-carrying union member and labor supporter. In return, labor unions have funneled roughly $1.6 million into his congressional campaigns — a fact that LePage likely would raise on the campaign trail.
Michaud served in Maine’s Legislature from 1980 to 2002, including terms as co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee and as Senate president, at a time when the chamber had 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent.
Michaud said it was his exposure to one of the mill’s less popular products — water pollution — that steered him into politics. But as he does in a campaign-style video on his still-unofficial campaign website, www.Michaud2014.com, he often weaves together his blue-collar roots and political deal-making ability as he appeals to voters.
“I first ran for the Maine Legislature because I saw how that mill and others like it were polluting the Penobscot River,” Michaud says in the video. “I won that first campaign and we did clean up the river. And I continued to work shifts at the paper mill for the next 22 years while serving the people who elected me to fight for what was right.”
In the Maine State House and now the U.S. House, Michaud has earned a reputation as a moderate or conservative Democrat. He has voted on both sides of the abortion issue and has a stellar rating from the National Rifle Association. But he is staunchly pro-union, supports President Obama’s health care law and is a vocal critic of global free trade agreements.
He has also developed a reputation as an influential voice on veterans issues, now serving as the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Kenneth Palmer, professor emeritus at the University of Maine, said Maine’s 2nd Congressional District better represents the politics of the state as a whole, which is why it has had so many successful statewide candidates.
In the 1994 Senate race, for instance, Republican U.S. Rep. Olympia Snowe, from the 2nd District, beat Rep. Tom Andrews, despite his popularity in the 1st District.
But Palmer said the dynamics of a race involving Michaud, LePage and Cutler are hard to parse.
“It’s going to be a very, very difficult race to predict, certainly this far out,” Palmer said. “What you could see is Mike Michaud cutting into Governor LePage’s strength in the 2nd District.”
LePage’s political adviser, Brent Littlefield, offered a glimpse of the Republican’s likely strategy against Michaud on Thursday.
“In his three decades as a politician, Michael Michaud has supported tax increases, job killing regulations and helped grow the deficit and debt in Washington to the point where it now reaches nearly 17 trillion dollars,” Littlefield said.
Cutler, meanwhile, attacked LePage and the party politics that he said are financed and controlled by special interests.
Recent history shows that candidates who come from the rural 2nd District have no problems winning statewide races.
Five of the last eight governors and six of the last eight senators were from areas that are now part of the 2nd District.
Undoubtedly, that is due in part to geography, because the 2nd District is much larger than the 1st, although federal law requires the districts to have roughly equal populations.
Does the north-south divide still matter in statewide races?
“Perhaps not as much as it used to, but to some degree,” Palmer said.
Michaud said Thursday that he has heard from Mainers of all political stripes — Democrats, Republicans and independents — from all over the state who are urging him to run.
“A really diverse cross-section of Mainers, so I felt it was time to take the next step to get into more depth about what people want the next governor to do,” Michaud said in an interview.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, who represents the 1st District, is vouching for her colleague after opting not to run for governor.
“Mike has served the people of Maine well in Congress and has been a tireless fighter for veterans, working families and small businesses,” Pingree said in a prepared statement. “I value his friendship and I know he will continue to serve Maine people well whatever he chooses to do — either in Congress or Augusta.”
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