AUGUSTA — Paul LePage. Mike Michaud. Eliot Cutler. One year before Maine voters head to the polls to vote for governor, the race seems to already be set.
In the 2010 gubernatorial race, a dozen Republicans and Democrats jockeyed for their party’s nomination with the final three contenders not settled until June. This time around, it’s shaping up to be a long three-person battle for the Blaine House.
Voters should brace themselves for a deluge of negative campaign ads in the race between incumbent LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Michaud and independent Cutler, three already well-known candidates in the state, political experts say.
“Usually within the primary you have a lot of people who have to introduce themselves,” said Jim Melcher, political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. “Here … you might see people going after the other candidates a little more, earlier.”
While primary challengers could still emerge, serious threats to the Republican governor or Michaud are unlikely. Instead, the next few months will be what one professor called a “ghost primary” between Michaud and Cutler – a competition for the better alternative to LePage.
Voters will watch the polls that periodically come out to see who has momentum, said Brian Duff, political science professor at the University of New England. By June, the time when voters head to the polls for a primary, they’ll have decided which of the two to support, he said.
Seven Republicans and five Democrats were on the 2010 ballot with no obvious front runners. Polls days before the June primaries indicated more than half of voters still had not decided on a candidate.
This year, the field of fewer candidates should make it easier for voters to zero in on a favorite.
With the race set early, candidates can raise as much money as they can and ensure that their grassroots organizations are established early on, said Sandy Maisel, political science professor at Colby College.
Democrats and Republicans have already begun coalescing support behind their candidates.
In a recent email to supporters, Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett said Republicans were “united in (their) quest for victory in 2014.”
With no primary challenger to Michaud in sight, Democrats who were stunned by the party’s poor performance in the 2010 election have also gotten an early start on lining up support and funds for Michaud, Duff said.
The 2nd Congressional District representative’s only primary challenger, Steve Woods, a businessman and Town Council chairman in Yarmouth, dropped out of the race in August.
“I think (Democrats) are really rallying behind Mike Michaud and everyone is on the same page in terms of raising funds,” Duff said.
“They really decided to dig in and make a stand for the future of the party in Maine.”
With LePage and Cutler, who lost to the Republican governor by less than 2 percentage points last election, voters may think it’s a repeat of 2010.
But experts say next year’s election is more likely to gain national attention after Michaud’s recent announcement that he is gay, Melcher said.
The many negative ads over the next year could cause voter fatigue, but Mainers already seem more invested in the race this time around, Melcher said.
“People for and against LePage are very motivated in a way people were not four years ago,” he said. “I think a lot of people are ready to vote right now.”