U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democratic candidate for governor, was once an opponent of abortion whose voting record endeared him to anti-abortion groups.

But Maine’s 2nd District congressman has changed his position in recent years, easing concerns within his party and earning him an endorsement Wednesday from NARAL Pro Choice America, a national advocate on abortion issues.

“His evolution on the issues of reproductive freedom and abortion access comes as a result of taking the time to hear the real stories of women and families who have grappled with these personal decisions in his state,” NARAL Executive Director Ilyse Hogue said in a written statement.

While supporters see an evolution, Michaud’s political opponents – especially independent candidate Eliot Cutler – see a lack of conviction.

Cutler’s spokeswoman, Crystal Canney, said Thursday that there is a huge disconnect between Michaud’s rhetoric and his voting record on abortion.

“As voters learn more about his record and his evolving, they will learn his core beliefs are as solid as Jello,” Canney said in an email. “Maine women aren’t going to be fooled by this endorsement.”

Since 2010, Michaud has a 100 percent rating on issues tracked by NARAL Pro Choice America.

In a written statement, he said, “Like many Americans, my views on abortion have evolved over the years. … As a Franco-American Catholic, I personally have struggled, like many others, with this issue since I was first elected to office at the age of 24.

“But over the years my views have changed, thanks in large part to groups like NARAL and the countless women who have shared their personal stories and concerns with me while I’ve been in office,” he said. “This endorsement today is a true testament to the positive change that can occur when you have advocates willing to share their stories and people who are willing to listen.”

Michaud, who was raised Catholic in a Franco-American family in East Millinocket, began his political career as an opponent of abortion. His 2002 congressional race against Republican Kevin Raye drew a lot of attention because Michaud was anti-abortion, while Raye was pro-abortion rights. Raye was endorsed by NARAL as well as Planned Parenthood.

According to the National Right to Life group, Michaud has voted against abortion in 12 of 49 key votes since 2003. Eleven of the 12 votes, including votes against allowing abortions at military bases and so-called partial-birth abortions, were cast in the years from 2003 to 2006.

After that, Michaud began voting differently, opposing the group on 26 of 27 key votes, including votes supporting stem cell research and emergency contraception like the morning-after pill for service women who had been raped or sexually assaulted. He also voted against bans on late-term abortion in cases of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk.

On Thursday, Canney issued a one-page document saying that Cutler is “the only major candidate for governor who is – and always has been – unequivocally pro-choice.”

The document highlights Cutler’s testimony last year in support of a buffer zone around the Planned Parenthood clinic on Congress Street in Portland to protect women from anti-abortion protesters, saying he would adopt the rule statewide.

Portland’s buffer zone is being challenged locally and will be tested in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The simple fact is Eliot has always stood firm for reproductive rights and a woman’s right to make her own health decisions, while Mike, even during his time in Congress, has voted for extreme legislation to deny them those rights,” Canney said.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a Franco-American Catholic who is running against Michaud and Cutler, has stayed true to his anti-abortion roots, said his political adviser, Brent Littlefield.

“In keeping with the values from those roots, he is pro-life,” Littlefield said. “He has often noted that looking at his family situation, his mother could have made a different choice and he might not be here today – but that every life matters.”

The Cutler campaign is circulating a 2008 interview by the Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s Jennifer Rooks in which Michaud appeared to sidestep questions about abortion. He called his early rankings among anti-abortion groups misleading. He emphasized his commitment to funding family planning to help prevent unintended pregnancies.

When asked if he was still an anti-abortion candidate, Michaud conceded that his voting record was a “mixture.”

“I never go by labels,” Michaud told Rooks. “I go by the issues and it’s been a mixture.”

When asked if he would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, Michaud instead focused on the economy, energy, national security and the war in Iraq.

Michaud’s spokeswoman, Lizzy Reinholt, accused the Cutler campaign of digging deep into Michaud’s political history and trying to “distort the facts” about his current positions.

Reinholt said Michaud’s 30-year record in elective office shows an “organic evolution” in which Michaud’s views have changed as the world has changed.

“We forget sometimes what things were like in the 1980s and 1990s,” she said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings