Eliot Cutler made his independent candidacy for governor official Tuesday, but before telling supporters where he was going, he felt compelled to tell them where he’d been.
Three days before the 2010 election, Cutler gathered supporters in Monument Square in Portland alongside former independent Gov. Angus King. King was there to endorse Cutler, an unprecedented move for King. A game-changer in a white-knuckle race, some said.
Cutler lost the five-way race to Gov. Paul LePage by less than two percentage points.
“We almost did it,” Cutler told a crowd of over 150 supporters at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute Tuesday. “This time we will.”
Time will tell if Cutler’s proclamation proves true. In speeches in Bangor and Portland Tuesday, he laid out his case. He wasn’t a spoiler, he said. His second quest for the Blaine House wasn’t quixotic or about ego. It was about a choice for Mainers, he said.
“The best way forward isn’t left or right, it’s straight ahead,” said Cutler, again deviating from prepared remarks.
A 67-year-old attorney from Cape Elizabeth, Cutler has never held elected office. He started his political career as a legislative assistant to Democratic U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie and served as natural resources and energy policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
Cutler later founded Cutler & Stanfield, a national environmental law firm. Cutler & Stanfield merged with Akin Gump, an international lobbying firm that spends significant money lobbying Congress and is considered a “heavy hitter” according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Cutler’s 25-minute speeches delivered Tuesday in Bangor and Portland were retrospective and solemn at times, aggressive and confident at others. The two-staged campaign launch was anticipated ever since Cutler finished second in the 2010 race. Cutler didn’t dwell on the 2010 election for long, but it’s clear that it follows him.
After his speech reporters asked him to respond to calls to drop out, avoid the split-vote effect that allowed LePage to win with a plurality, not a majority. In others, to stand aside and allow Democratic candidate Mike Michaud to confront LePage one on one.
Cutler waved off the suggestion. He’s heard it before. A lot. Aside from about “a dozen” Democratic party loyalists, he said, nobody wanted him to get out of the race.
The suggestion, he said, “smacks of desperation sprinkled with entitlement.”
Cutler, 67, launched his campaign in Bangor, his hometown, before ending the launch in Portland, a short ride from his home in Cape Elizabeth. The day-long event culminated with a Twitter town hall and follows Cutler’s unofficial announcement in the spring that he planned to make a second run at the Blaine House.
Cutler has been ramping up the media-driven launch since last week when he released a 104-page book that revealed his policy initiatives should his second bid end in victory in 2014. The book also contained plenty of shots at the two major political parties, which Cutler described as obsessed with scoring political points against one another at the expense of the public interest.
He said Mainers should free themselves from “the chokehold of partisanship that makes scoring points more important than solving problems.”
Over the past several months Cutler has taken sharp aim at LePage’s behavior and policy agenda. On Tuesday, he said LePage had a compelling life story, rising from poverty to the state’s chief executive. However, Cutler said, LePage’s claims of success as a businessman were at odds with his tenure in the Blaine House.
“Were Paul LePage an employee, let alone chief executive, of any company or public institution in Maine, he would not still be in office today,” Cutler said. “Maine people should not renew his contract in 2014.”
Cutler has said little about Michaud, the six-term congressman lured out of his safe seat in the 2nd Congressional District by the Maine Democratic Party. On Tuesday Cutler said he too “liked Mike” – a nod to the Democratic candidate’s campaign catchphrase – but said he was a “product of 30 years in Augusta and Washington.”
“His party’s policies didn’t work before and they won’t move Maine forward,” Cutler said.
Lizzy Reinholt, Michaud’s communications director, said Cutler’s claim was an “easy talking point, but not so easy to prove.” Reinholt said Michaud’s career in the Legislature, during which he helped enact environmental reforms and a bipartisan agreement on a minimum wage increase, showed that the candidate could work with both parties.
In addition to framing Michaud as emblematic of a Democratic party that held sway over state government for decades with “timeworn slogans and platitudes,” Cutler also took aim at his early voting record on women’s choice on abortion and guns.
Michaud, who has received endorsements and donations from the National Rifle Association as a congressman, has said that he’s supportive of background checks to buy firearms. Cutler indicated Tuesday that Michaud may be softer on the issue than he’s let on.
“I am not afraid of the NRA in Washington because I know that most NRA members in Maine agree with me,” said Cutler, referencing polling that showed Mainers support background checks.
Cutler’s dig at Michaud’s record on abortion stems from the Democrat’ early support for pro-life initiatives. Reinholt said the candidate had “evolved” on the issue from the time when he was a 25-year-old lawmaker, citing his 100 percent pro-choice rating from national pro-choice groups.
The attack against the political parties is nothing new for Cutler, who likened both to a “duopoly” in 2010. The rhetoric is aimed at unenrolled voters, the largest voting bloc in Maine. However, Cutler also garnered support from Democrats and Republicans.
Political observers believe a number of Democratic voters backed Cutler late in the 2010 race as the party’s nominee, Libby Mitchell, faded to a distant third in the polls. This year Democratic leaders worked hard to recruit Michaud to guard against a repeat of the 2010 election.
Recent polls have shown Cutler’s support to be less than 20 percent, while Michaud has a slim edge over LePage. Two of the surveys were conducted by polling firms whose clients include Democratic candidates or organizations. Cutler’s campaign has dismissed the polls, saying the election is more than a year away.
Many political observers agree that the polls should be taken with a grain of salt. However, there are differing opinions about some of the results showing that respondents had not formulated an opinion about Cutler.
According to a poll conducted in August by the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, Michaud’s favorability rating was 53 percent. Cutler’s was split. Thirty-two percent of respondents have a favorable view of him, but 35 percent weren’t sure how they felt about him.
Cutler supporters say the number of undecided respondents showed that the independent has a potentially high ceiling of support. Others argued that voters should have an opinion of Cutler because he has stayed close to the political scene and it was widely assumed that he would run again in 2014.
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said there are a couple of ways to read Cutler’s undecided numbers. On one hand, he said, it’s possible that the public doesn’t have a strong view of him, even though some voters broke his way in the 2010 election.
“Maybe those people didn’t have a fully formed opinion of Eliot Cutler,” Brewer said. “All they knew was that Libby Mitchell was sinking like a stone and they didn’t want Paul LePage.”
So far, the prevailing narrative from Democrats is that Cutler is a spoiler. In May, Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said a vote for Cutler is a vote for LePage.
But Cutler, in an interview with the National Journal, said it was wrong to presume that all of his supporters were Democrats.
“There’s a real possibility, if not a likelihood, that during the course of this campaign many people who voted for LePage – independents, Republicans – in 2010 and who are to one degree or another dissatisfied with his performance in office are going to come to the opinion that either he shouldn’t or can’t win reelection,” Cutler told the National Journal.
Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager, said Tuesday that the Republican movement to his candidate was an emerging storyline of the campaign.
Republicans, meanwhile, are attempting to portray Cutler as a Democrat cloaked as an independent, saying there’s little difference between he and Michaud. Brent Littlefield, in a statement issued Tuesday, used the word “liberal” five times in a response to Cutler’s campaign kickoff.
“Liberal Eliot Cutler’s announcement, his book, and his campaign offer the same glossed-over liberal ideas that failed Maine for decades,” Littlefield said. “Smooth talking won’t make his liberal ideas of increasing welfare spending work any better than they have worked for Michaud when he helped run state government or Baldacci when he held the Governorship.
Cutler, responding to the statement, blasted back.
“They call a person who disagrees with them a ‘liberal’ and every program ‘welfare’,” said Cutler, deploying air quotes. “You know it’s like crying wolf. I think Maine people have had enough with that.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: