There’s a sense of urgency among supporters of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, whose second bid for the Blaine House is lagging in early polling and in financial resources. So much so, that a political action committee supporting Cutler is taking to the airwaves seven months before Election Day.

Betsy Smith, the head of the Campaign for Maine, confirmed Friday that the group has purchased a $125,000 television ad buy in every Maine market.

Smith acknowledged that it was unusual to hit the airwaves so early, but said the group had hoped to introduce Cutler to voters before the din of political ads increases later this year.

Smith also acknowledged that the group had hoped for a bigger buy ($125,000 is relatively small even in Maine’s cheap market) and that the PAC’s fundraising was off its preferred pace – a reality shared by Cutler’s campaign committee. She said that some would-be Democratic donors were reluctant to support Cutler now because they are fearful splitting the support between the independent and Democratic U.S. Rep. Michaud will lead to another victory for Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“I think people are more hesitant at this point in the campaign to throw their support behind the candidate who they really want, who they really believe to be the best governor, in fear of LePage being re-elected,” she said. “Unfortunately there are some people, some donors, who are operating from a position of fear right now. We’re really working on it right now.”

The Campaign for Maine has posted over $85,000 in contributions this year and spent over $72,000 – $55,000 of it to Douglas Schoen, a New York-based political consultant whose previous clients include Michael Bloomberg, the former independent mayor of New York City. Schoen is involved in the production of the TV spot. That means the Campaign for Maine has spent the $58,000 cash balance it posted at the end of the last reporting period and more of the money the PAC has drawn since then.

The reluctance among donors is the reason that the television ad that will run May 6 through June 3 will primarily be a biographical spot. Smith said the PAC had hoped to run an issue ad as well, but is starting small.

“Our goal all along was to talk about Eliot Cutler statewide as soon as we could, as soon as we could afford to do so,” she said. “In the fall every candidate is going to be on the air and there’s just going to be a lot of noise. We just wanted an opportunity early on, before the intensity of the campaign begins, to share with the rest of Maine the Eliot that we know Eliot Cutler to be.”

In a March 10 fundraising letter, the Campaign for Maine acknowledged that Cutler’s introduction needed to happen sooner rather than later.

“We need your financial support to ensure all Maine voters know who Eliot is and the kind of leadership he’ll bring to Augusta. Our campaign (called Campaign for Maine) will do this through strategic communications such as TV and radio. But this kind of outreach cannot wait until fall. Polling shows Eliot needs to gain traction now – or his chances of being competitive in the fall will be compromised.”

Smith pre-emptively rejected claims that the Cutler campaign and the PAC were desperate to move the needle following polling and campaign cash balances that showed the independent lagging.

“He’s not desperate at all. He’s running a good campaign,” she said.

– Steve Mistler

THE ENDORSEMENT THAT WASN’T

Kevin Raye and Bruce Poliquin, the Republican hopefuls for the 2nd Congressional District seat, have been blasting each other for several weeks now. Last week the two candidates engaged in a bizarre battle over an endorsement.

Their target? Rep. Dean Cray, a four-term Republican legislator from Palmyra.

Usually, endorsements are clear-cut. This wasn’t, with both campaigns claiming Cray’s support.

In a Facebook post, Poliquin’s campaign touted the endorsements of four Republican state representatives: Cray, Richard Campbell of Orrington, Matthew Pouliot of Augusta and Ellen Winchenbach of Waldoboro (note that Pouliot and Winchenbach aren’t from the 2nd District).

Later in the day, Raye’s campaign responded with a press release saying Cray was endorsing Raye and that Poliquin had “falsely claimed Cray’s endorsement.” In the release, Cray was quoted as saying he supports Raye “because he has proven he can always be trusted to stand up for rural Maine.”

The Kennebec Journal reached out to both campaigns to get to the bottom of the kerfuffle. Poliquin, in a phone conversation, insisted that Cray was endorsing him. He urged the reporter to call Cray to confirm.

Cray said he’d had separate conversations with Raye and Poliquin – Raye last year, Poliquin after last weekend’s state party convention – in which he said each would be good for the job. However, he couldn’t remember giving either one a full-on endorsement during those conversations.

“Right now, I’m not going to endorse anybody,” he said, adding that he planned to tell the campaigns the same thing.

Reached afterward, Poliquin didn’t want to comment on Cray’s choice not to endorse or the discussion the two had. Raye spokesman Michael Leavitt said Cray approved the quote in the campaign’s press release.

Cray agreed, but said he had done so hastily.

Overnight, after saying he wouldn’t endorse anyone, he said he is now leaning toward Raye, since he has “a little more experience in the process” than Poliquin.

But he blamed himself for the confusion and said either would make a fine congressman. He still seemed surprised at the wrangling for his support.

“It’s not like my endorsement’s going to make a hell of a big difference,” Cray said. “But it’s a numbers game for these guys and I understand that.”

– Michael Shepherd

‘INDOCTRINATOR’ GIVES TO LEPAGE

There were a lot of interesting nuggets in the latest campaign finance reports submitted by the candidates running for governor.

Here’s one: Barry Mills, the president of Bowdoin College, gave the maximum – $3,000 – to Republican Gov. Paul LePage during the last reporting period.

That’s Barry Mills, husband to Karen Mills, a former member of the Obama administration and once rumored Democratic candidate for governor (Karen Mills has also donated the maximum to Democratic candidate U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud). That’s Barry Mills, the outgoing president of Bowdoin, which is regarded in some conservative circles as yet another cog in the liberal indoctrination machine.

So what’s Mills doing giving to LePage, alleged breather of tea party conservatism and fire?

It would be easy, perhaps fun, to think that Mills’ donation coincides with his pending release from Bowdoin, the shedding of its oppressive yoke of liberalism and dining hall meals of Honolulu Tofu (yes, Moulton Union served that to discerning students last week).

But here’s the thing: Barry Mills is an equal opportunity giver.

In 2012, he donated $500 not only to Mike Michaud’s congressional re-election campaign, but also to the Democrat’s opponent, Republican Kevin Raye. In 2008, Mills gave $2,000 to Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tom Allen. He gave $4,600 to the incumbent, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, during the same election cycle and $2,600 for her current re-election bid.

This type of giving isn’t unique to Mills, who may have a lot professional and personal reasons for supporting the candidates to whom he’s donated (Mills declined to comment through a spokesperson). Savvy business interests take a similar tack, playing the long game. By spreading the wealth, these businesses stay engaged in the political process and in the minds of the candidates, while insulating themselves against the inevitable changes in power and leadership.

– Steve Mistler

POLL: COLLINS UP BIG ON BELLOWS

A new poll of Maine voters shows Republican Sen. Susan Collins with a wide lead over her Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows.

A telephone survey of 830 “likely voters” in Maine by the polling firm Rasmussen Reports found that 60 percent of respondents supported Collins in her attempt to win a fourth term while 24 percent supported Bellows. Nine percent were undecided and 6 percent said they supported a different candidate.

The poll was conducted between April 23-25 and had a margin of error of 3 percent.

The Rasmussen Reports poll is the second survey of Maine’s U.S. Senate race conducted by a national firm.

In November, Public Policy Polling had Collins at 59 percent and Bellows at 20 percent but with 22 percent undecided. That telephone poll, which was conducted less than a month after Bellows officially joined the race, involved 964 registered Maine voters.

North Carolina-based PPP is often described as a left-leaning polling firm. Rasmussen Reports, which is based in New Jersey, has been accused of leaning Republican in recent years. Both are considered reputable national public opinion firms, however.

Name recognition is obviously a major challenge for Bellows. She is well known around the State House and in some political circles because of her role as the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. But she is running for political office for the first time.

Another challenge for the challenger will be overcoming Collins’ apparent popularity with many Mainers.

Rasmussen found that 77 percent of respondents – including 77 percent of self-identified Democrats – had either a “very favorable” or a “somewhat favorable” opinion of Collins. Bellows, by comparison, was viewed favorably by 27 percent of those polled.

That isn’t to say that people looked upon Bellows in a negative light, however. The two candidates had similar “unfavorable” ratings, with Collins at 20 percent and Bellows at 22 percent.

The big difference was that 40 percent of respondents indicated they had never heard of Bellows when asked whether they viewed her favorably or unfavorably, compared to 1 percent for Collins.

– Kevin Miller

Open Season is a compilation of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram political blogs, Open Season and Capitol Ticker. Press Herald/Telegram staff writers Steve Mistler, Randy Billings, Eric Russell, Kevin Miller, Matt Byrne and Kennebec Journal reporter Michael Shepherd contribute to the blogs.