LEWISTON — Promising more civil and unifying leadership in Augusta, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud kicked off his 2014 gubernatorial bid Thursday in Lewiston, the hometown of his Republican rival and the epicenter of Franco-Americans, the state’s oft-pursued block of swing voters.
The location of the campaign launch for the six-term congressman and former millworker did not go unnoticed by political observers, who saw it as a symbolic challenge to Gov. Paul LePage. LePage was raised on the nearby hardscrabble streets before rising out of poverty to become the state’s chief executive.
Lewiston also is close to southern Maine, where Michaud’s campaign must contend with a second front against independent Eliot Cutler.
Michaud’s rivals promise a difficult path to the Blaine House. On Thursday, in front of a crowd of more than 100 supporters, Michaud said he was ready for the challenge.
“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “Personal and political attacks are standing in the way of progress. Our state has become a punch line on the late-night TV news.”
Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political adviser, expressed confidence in the governor’s ability to win re-election.
“We welcome Michael Michaud’s entry into a Maine governor’s race that he will lose next year,” Littlefield said in a written statement. “While Michaud announces in Gov. LePage’s Lewiston childhood home, Gov. LePage is saving and creating hundreds of jobs in Michaud’s with the now reopened mill (in East Millinocket).”
Michaud delivered his remarks inside the Franco-American Heritage Center, a former Roman Catholic church that, in an earlier time, was surrounded by the din and economic vitality of Lewiston’s now-dormant mills.
During his 20-minute speech, Michaud attempted to appeal to the middle- and working-class residents who he said had “less money in their pockets and more worries on their minds.”
“We are being held back by a lack of leadership, by pettiness and anger and by policies that stand in the way of progress, growth and opportunity,” he said.
Michaud also took aim at LePage’s policy decisions, including the governor’s veto of a bill that would have expanded Medicaid, the public insurance program for the poor, by about 70,000 people, including 3,000 veterans.
“I wish that (LePage) had fought half as hard for them (veterans) as they have fought for us,” he said.
LEWISTON A KEY BATTLEGROUND
That Michaud chose the center as the site for his campaign kickoff makes political sense. Lewiston is the second-largest population center in the state. Roughly a third of its residents are Franco-American, a hotly pursued block of voters by candidates seeking statewide office.
Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine-Farmington, said the location was right for Michaud.
“It’s a little far away from his native turf,” Melcher said. “But there are a lot of strategic reasons for doing it in Lewiston. . . . It’s doubtful that anyone will remember it a year from now, but it was good symbolic politics to launch his campaign there.”
LePage carried this city when he won the 2010 election. Michaud has won Lewiston each of the six times he was elected to the 2nd Congressional District seat, including 2002, when he became the first Franco-American from Maine elected to Congress.
Michaud described the city as a special place, noting it’s Franco-American heritage and a “tradition of hard work and transformation.”
But taking Lewiston and the Blaine House from LePage won’t be easy, according to political observers. The governor has his share of detractors, but he, like Michaud, is considered a good one-on-one politician, thriving in up-close interactions with Mainers.
In 2011, LePage returned to the Franco-American Heritage Center shortly after he was sworn into office. The crowd was impressed, laughing as LePage told stories about hiding out in Little Canada and stealing Halloween candy from children there.
“Isn’t that awful?” LePage said. “And now I’m governor of Maine.”
Michaud has already begun picking at the governor’s unpolished finish, saying the state requires a leader with civility. He said Thursday that the governor’s “extreme agenda” was hurting Mainers.
“He’s attacked our cities, our towns and our workers,” he said. “He’s attacked our teachers, our schools and our universities. He’s attacked our environment and our economy.”
There are other obstacles facing the Democrat besides LePage. Cutler and Michaud are competing for many of the same voters and campaign donors in an effort to gain the upper hand in a race that could divide unenrolled and Democratic-leaning voters.
A similar scenario unfolded in 2010, when LePage won the election with less than 40 percent of the popular vote. However, national and local political observers believe the bloc of voters that split in 2010 could unite behind either Cutler or Michaud.
Right now, observers say, the race is between Michaud and Cutler to take on LePage. Abandoning a relatively safe congressional seat is a risk for Michaud, Melcher said, but the congressman has a path to victory.
“I think that there are enough anybody-but-LePage voters that will likely wait to see if Michaud or Cutler pulls head,” Melcher said.
Whether anti-LePage voters coalesce behind Cutler or Michaud could be decided over the next year. Democrats are betting that Michaud is the right candidate to unite Maine’s independent and Democratic voters. He was part of the “blue dog” coalition in Congress and has won election six times in the more conservative 2nd Congressional District.
NO EASY PATH TO GOVERNORSHIP
His entry in the race has attracted attention from the Democratic Governors Association, a national political group that targets key races with political advertisements and advocacy efforts. The group has been running online ads critical of LePage since June and it’s expected to increase its presence in Maine as the 2014 election nears. The same goes for the Republican Governors Association, which spent $1.2 million here to support LePage in 2010.
Democrats are hopeful that the bulk of the Republican group’s resources will be diverted elsewhere. There are 36 gubernatorial contests in 2014, and 10 of them include Republican incumbents in states that play prominently in national politics, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Democrats also point to assessments from observers such as Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who last week said Michaud’s entry into the race and poor poll numbers for LePage had changed the Maine governor’s race from a “toss-up” to “leans Democratic/independent.”
Michaud told supporters Thursday that the path to victory would be difficult. He called on Democratic volunteers to hit the ground running.
“I punched a clock for a lot of years,” said Michaud, referring to his 29 years working at a mill. “I know when it’s time to get to work. Now it’s time. I’m ready.”
Littlefield, LePage’s political adviser, has challenged claims that the governor is in trouble politically, saying the campaign’s polling shows LePage with strong approval numbers.
Thursday, Littlefield attempted to chip away at Michaud’s reputation as a conservative Democrat. He said Michaud’s record in Congress showed that he supported “extremism and liberalism,” and that he is advocating for more welfare spending “that will send Maine back to the growing welfare of the Baldacci years.”
Cutler, in a written statement, said Michaud’s entry into the race offered voters a clear choice between “the cynical and partisan party politics that have overtaken Washington and Augusta and have denied opportunity to thousands and thousands of Maine people.”
“My candidacy will offer Maine voters a clear vision for the future, a sound plan to rebuild our economy, and independent leadership that can bring about real change,” Cutler said. “I’m excited about the extraordinary support we are receiving all over our state from Democrats, Republicans and independents who want to work with me to take Maine in a new direction.”
Michaud may face a Democratic primary challenge. Yarmouth’s Steve Woods, who ran as an independent in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, announced last year that he was running as a Democrat in 2014.
Independent hopefuls include Lee Schultheis of Freeport and Adam Eldridge of Brewer. David Slagger, a Green Independent, has also been fundraising for 2014.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: