The campaign for gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler experienced a shakeup recently when it parted ways with field director Brandon Maheu, who held an obscure post that provides critical support services for an independent contender.

To the general public, the departure of a campaign field director means next to nothing. But in a political campaign, jettisoning the person responsible for organizing volunteers, promoting potential donor fundraising events, compiling voter lists and building a grassroots network and enthusiasm for a candidate 10 months before Election Day is a significant development – especially in a race that’s expected to be close.

And it’s especially significant for an independent candidate, who has neither a political party nor its built-in campaign apparatus on which to lean.

Maheu, who had done similar work for the Maine Democratic Party and former gubernatorial candidate Patrick McGowan, declined to comment and referred all questions to the campaign. Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager, wouldn’t provide a lot of detail, but he cautioned against reading too much into the staffing change.

“We parted ways amicably and mutually,” O’Meara said. “We were happy with the work Brandon did for us and we wish him well.”

It’s unclear if Maheu feels the same way. His Twitter account has been scrubbed of any mention of his past affiliation with Cutler. His pro-Cutler tweets from the past few months appear to have been deleted.

However, whether there are hard feelings between Maheu or the Cutler team is secondary to the impact his departure could have on the independent’s chances of defeating Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

Speculation about the potential impact to his campaign is swirling, from Maine to The Washington Post, where The Fix, a political blog, noted Maheu’s departure Friday in its rankings of the top gubernatorial races. In ranking the Maine gubernatorial race as the second best contest to watch this year, it said Maheu’s departure raised questions “about the stability” of Cutler’s campaign.

Michael Cuzzi, a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, agreed that the development was important.

“You’re talking about a senior staff position within a campaign and it’s a critical position,” said Cuzzi, who manages the Portland office for VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C.

“That job is to build capacity, talk to voters, make phone calls … and ultimately plot a strategy for a campaign to win,” he said.

“Losing that person, 10 months before the election, is serious and it’s especially serious for Eliot Cutler because he lacks the built-in organization that a party candidate has,” Cuzzi added.

Cuzzi is not affiliated with any campaign. He writes a political column for the Maine Sunday Telegram.

He said he had no insight into Maheu’s departure. Regardless of the reason, he said the Cutler campaign will need to replace him.

There was plenty of postmortem analysis in 2010 when Cutler finished a close second to LePage. However, a critical factor in the race – one acknowledged by the Cutler campaign – was that the independent didn’t have a field operation.

The absence of that operation was clear on the night of the election, as Cutler built a lead in southern Maine and watched it evaporate as results trickled in from far-flung rural districts. While LePage’s platform resonated with those conservative-leaning precincts, he also had a party apparatus and a field operation to make sure that those who liked him actually voted for him.

Cutler, a Bangor native, campaigned in many of those rural districts. But he didn’t have a field operation to match LePage or Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell, who had complex voter lists for their staffs – or affiliated groups like the Republican Governors Association, in LePage’s case – to work the phones, knock on doors and get people to the polls.

The deficiency was not lost on the Cutler campaign. During the independent’s Portland campaign launch in late September, Maheu told the Portland Press Herald that his job was to make sure 2010 didn’t happen in 2014.

Maheu had some experience. He did field work for the Maine Democratic Party in 2012 and was paid a little more than $32,000 for it, according to expenditure reports filed with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. In 2010, he was paid nearly $22,000 by McGowan for his six months as campaign manager during the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Maheu was on pace to make much more working for Cutler. According to campaign finance reports, Maheu was paid nearly $34,000 for six months as the independent’s field director. He would have made more than $90,000 if he had stayed with the campaign until November.

It’s difficult to compare that salary with the field directors of LePage and Michaud, neither of whom is as reliant on the position thanks to either the party apparatus or outside groups that help perform the same function as a field director. (That’s another reason why endorsements from unions or groups like EqualityMaine are an additional boon for Michaud – a built-in network that will prove invaluable during get-out-the-vote efforts.)

According to Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for LePage in 2010, the closest person the campaign had to a field director was Scott VanOrman. The campaign paid him $380 in 2010, mostly in expense reimbursements. Similarly, Mitchell only paid for field operations during the Democratic primary. After she won that, the Maine Democratic Party did most of the field operations for her.

Party candidates’ ability to rely on outside groups or their party apparatus to execute a field strategy underscores the importance of the field director to Cutler.

The importance is not lost on O’Meara, the independent’s campaign manager. He said Maheu’s departure does not mean that the campaign is abandoning its field operation. “We’re still interested in field and we’re already in discussions with people to bring onto the campaign,” he said.

He waved off speculation that Maheu’s departure was a signal that the campaign is running short on cash. That speculation is fueled by Cutler loaning his own campaign $200,000 just before the end of the last reporting period. The loan was made as the campaign was approaching a deficit.

O’Meara said people were reading too much into Cutler’s loan.

“We’ve always operated under the assumption that Eliot was going to have to fund a lot of his campaign,” he said. “It was not an act of desperation.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler