AUGUSTA –– If voters learned anything from the last gubernatorial race in Maine, it’s that every vote counts – and that women may hold the keys to the Blaine House.

With about 38 percent of the vote in 2010, Republican Paul LePage held off a late surge by independent Eliot Cutler, who finished less than 2 percentage points behind, ahead of Democrat Libby Mitchell, who captured 19 percent.

Many people are expecting another unpredictable three-way race for governor this year.

In 2010, women represented 53.4 percent of registered voters in Maine but accounted for 60 percent of the electorate, according to the Maine Women’s Policy Center.

Already the campaigns are vying for women’s votes.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate, and Cutler, still an independent, spoke Thursday to the Women’s Legislative Council of Maine for about 45 minutes each. Gov. Le-Page did not attend, but he was represented by his daughter Lauren.

“I think (the women’s vote) will be crucial for a number of reasons,” said Eliza Townsend, the executive of the Maine Women’s Lobby.

Not only do women vote in larger numbers than men, Townsend said, but they are also swing voters who tend to make up their minds late in the election cycle. In addition, they care about a wider range of issues in addition to those traditionally associated with women, such as reproductive freedom and domestic violence.

Michaud, who supports increasing the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid, has a strong rating when it comes to women’s issues, including a 92 percent rating for 2014 from Planned Parenthood.

Despite starting his career as anti-abortion, he was recently endorsed by NARAL Pro Choice America. The group noted that since 2010, Michaud had a 100 percent rating.

Cutler doesn’t have a legislative record on women’s issues, but his campaign blasted the NARAL endorsement. His spokeswomen, Crystal Canney, said, “Maine women aren’t going to be fooled by this endorsement.”

Cutler, meanwhile, took the unusual step of testifying before a Portland City Council subcommittee last October in support of a free speech buffer zone near a Planned Parenthood clinic on Congress Street, where anti-abortion protesters would gather, preach and try to shame women out of getting abortions. Cutler said he would try to extend a similar buffer, which is being challenged in court, around abortion clinics statewide.

LePage hasn’t been ranked by the Maine Women’s Lobby. However, his efforts to end domestic violence could be help him with women voters.

But other views of his likely don’t sit well with women. Le-Page is anti-abortion. He opposes increases to the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid. He imposed lifetime limits on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and dismissed concerns over the chemical BPA, saying “the worst case is some women may have little beards.”

LePage eliminated $400,000 in grant funding for the Family Planning Association of Maine in 2012. That represented 25 percent of the group’s state funding, forcing it to close two clinics and reduce the hours and services at others, according to Kate Brogan, the group’s spokeswoman.

MAKING THEIR CASES

All three campaigns made their cases Thursday to the Women’s Legislative Council of Maine, a nonpartisan, nonsectarian group that has been around since the 1940s.

The group has about 80 members, 60 percent of whom represent other women’s groups throughout the state, according to President Elizabeth Duckworth. Other members include former legislators and retired teachers.

The group expressed concern to candidates about a variety of issues, including education, the economy, the cost of living in Maine and the breakdown of the family unit.

Cutler gave a nod to the importance of the women during his presentation, saying women played a key role in merging the towns of Dover and Foxcroft to save money – an issue that had been discussed since the late 1800s and frequently voted down by both towns.

“Suddenly in 1922, Dover and Foxcroft became Dover-Foxcroft. Do you know why? Because women got to vote,” Cutler said to the delight of the crowd of about 40 older women. “They came to the Town Meeting and said, ‘This is stupid and they applied some common sense.’”

Throughout his speech, Cutler took shots at Michaud, though not by name, for his evolution on reproductive freedom, partisan gridlock, and an economic plan that offers costs but no ideas for funding the Democrat’s programs.

Cutler said that when independent Angus King was governor, Maine’s economy was running “neck-and-neck” with the Boston area and ahead of other New England states. Since then, Maine has fallen behind economically and both Republicans and Democrats were to blame, he said.

LePage and Michaud “are offering us what’s not working now and what didn’t work before,” Cutler said. “If we squander the next four years, we may have missed our last opportunity. We may tip into a downward spiral that will be irreversible.”

Several women asked Cutler about his plan to keep families and especially young people in Maine.

Cutler highlighted his economic plan to reduce property taxes and increase sales taxes. He suggested the cost of higher education could be reduced by merging the community and university systems, and the state could help graduates by giving them a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to help pay off their student debt.

Michaud also highlighted the need to reduce property taxes, but he said Cutler’s plan falls short.

Instead of raising sales taxes, which he called regressive, Maine should fully fund revenue sharing to municipalities and meet the state’s obligation fund 55 percent of the general purpose aid to education, he said.

During his speech, Michaud highlighted his blue-collar background as a millworker and his experience working in the Maine Legislature and U.S. Congress. The group applauded his efforts to get President Obama and the Department of Defense to purchase New Balance running shoes – which are made in Maine – for members of the military.

Michaud said he would restore trust and communication between legislators and the governor’s office.

“I am the only candidate running for governor who has a proven track record of working across the aisle,” Michaud said. “It’s one thing to have ideas, but it’s another thing to get them through the Legislature.”

Michaud, who supported the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, highlighted the need to expand Medicaid to cover about 70,000 additional Mainers, including 3,000 veterans.

He criticized LePage’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act, calling Medicaid expansion morally and fiscally responsible. He said Maine would save $600 million over 10 years through enhanced reimbursements, and hospitals would receive an additional $348 million.

Lauren LePage defended her father’s opposition to expanding Medicaid, as well as his efforts to combat welfare fraud.

“Gov. LePage is the only candidate in the race concerned about the fiscal impact of giving free, taxpayer (funded) health care to nearly 70,000 able-bodied individuals,” she said.

She listed the governor’s accomplishments over the last four years, including focusing on domestic violence, lowering the unemployment rate, lowering income taxes, eliminating the automatic increase in the gas tax, pension reform and repaying hospitals $750 million without raising taxes.

“That was a huge welfare debt that we took care of,” she said. “The hospitals have barely had time to cash the checks they need to get back what they spent on the last expansion and here we are talking about expanding again.”

While Michaud criticized the governor’s inability to work with legislators, Lauren LePage said her father often gets frustrated with the legislative process. As a businessman, he is used to having his decisions be final.

“His frustration is driven by passion,” she said. “Government moves slow. He’s not a slow guy. He’s not a slow thinker. He likes to get things done.”

Education was a major point of discussion during Lauren LePage’s question-and-answer period. While some audience members expressed concern about tax money being diverted from public schools to charter schools, the discussion quickly turned to the breakdown of the family unit and the lack of parental involvement in children’s education.

“That’s not something a governor can fix. It’s not something a president can fix,” LePage said.

She described taxpayers as “the underdog” and said schools need to spend their money more wisely by putting it in the classrooms. If more funding is needed, the state should look for cuts in the Department of Health and Human Services, she said.

GENDER GAP?

The most recent polling suggests the women’s vote may be especially critical for LePage’s challengers in the gubernatorial race.

A Pan Atlantic SMS Group Omnibus Poll released Wednesday hinted that a gender gap exists among male and female voters considering the three candidates.

Of the 400 people surveyed, 47.8 percent of likely male voters were leaning toward LePage, compared to the 32.1 percent toward Michaud and 16.2 percent toward Cutler.

However, 42.5 percent of the women surveyed were more inclined to support Michaud, whereas 29.4 percent were leaning toward LePage and 24.5 percent toward Cutler.

Earlier this month, a separate poll by Public Policy Polling also gave Michaud an advantage with women voters. Forty-four percent of women supported Michaud, whereas 32 percent supported LePage and 19 percent supported Cutler. PPP found that LePage and Michaud split the male vote at 43 percent each, with Cutler getting 9 percent.

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings