During the Fourth of July holiday week, I was fortunate to escape to Spring River Lake near Franklin. The beautiful spring-fed lake in the shadow of Tunk Mountain was not only idyllic, it afforded an inimitable luxury: complete isolation from the “real world.”
For a full week I was completely cut off from all external “inputs.” No email, Internet, radio, television, newspapers, Twitter, Facebook or text messages. The closest I came to outside information was a brief glance at the Bangor Daily News while at the Franklin general store picking up camp essentials . . . Benadryl cream for the kids, ice cream and beer.
The BDN headline screamed something about Gov. LePage and “domestic terrorists.” And at that moment – wanting only to return to swimming, fishing and smores – I selfishly decided to ignore it altogether. I wasn’t interested in another self-inflicted LePage gong show distracting my vacation.
Of course, all good things come to an end and I returned to a steady diet of follow-on stories and analyses related to “terrorism-gate” or whatever we might call this consummate example of dreadful gubernatorial judgment.
Candidly, my first reaction to the story was of the worst sort. I basically shrugged it off as yet another example of “LePage being LePage.” I succumbed to the very voter habituation and desensitization that our embarrassment of a governor relies upon as he careens from one brutish outburst to the next.
And if his indulgence of potentially violent political extremists doesn’t generate an initial burst of outrage from a recovering Democratic political operative, it’s easy to imagine how Mainers engaged in eking out an existence in our still-sluggish economy couldn’t care less.
Of course the disturbing flip side to my indifference is the adulation the governor’s deeply conservative base lavishes upon these sorts of alarming and irresponsible behaviors.
And it’s these two phenomena – desensitization amongst the center-left and reasonable right, and a bottomless reservoir of adoration on the hard right – that explain why LePage’s polling numbers rarely move. There’s simply few people to move.
Short of killing someone – which apparently was an actual topic of conversation amongst the governor and the “Constitutional Coalition” members he courted over eight meetings – I don’t expect to expect any real movement in LePage’s polling numbers through November.
The governor is apt to perform as well by hitting the campaign trail as he would by remaining in an undisclosed location through Election Day. And the latter option might gain him a point or two.
So, counterintuitively, the race for governor may have comparatively little to do with the governor. This isn’t a race to beat LePage so much as it is a race to be the anti-LePage; the clear alternative to a governor the vast majority of voters have already decided to fundamentally loathe or blindly embrace.
And we know that a majority of Mainers generally occupy the “loathe category” since every voter survey confirms LePage’s defeat in a two-person contest.
The race-within-a-race between Cutler and Michaud, then, is the real gubernatorial contest. It’s the race to be the unmistakable “other guy” come early to mid-October. And whichever candidate unambiguously owns that mantle will benefit from of a mass exercise in strategic voting from the LePage loathers.
Michaud’s supporters may truly love him and want to see him elected. And Cutler’s supporters may think he’s absolutely the best man for the job. But let’s be clear, few voters are going to walk the plank with their candidate on principle alone if it means LePage gets another four years.
That phenomenon was evident in the mass abandonment of Libby Mitchell in 2010 and will be on even greater display in 2014 after four years of actual LePage governance, not simply the prospect of it.
The big question, then, is whether Cutler can move out of the gubernatorial polling basement and catch lightning a second time in the final weeks of the 2014 contest. Right now it’s hard to see how that’s possible, not only because Cutler seems unable to articulate a message and platform that elevates him to striking distance, but also because of the real inequities he faces as an independent candidate, both organizationally and monetarily.
Just last week, a pro-Michaud PAC consisting of the Democratic Governors’ Association, unions and progressive organizations began touting a $2 million pro-Michaud ad buy, calling it “just the beginning.” Those are real dollars and immensely difficult to overcome.
That’s not to suggest that Cutler should pull the rip cord yet. But he must get into the race with Michaud in a substantive way or he’ll increasingly fade into irrelevance as October approaches. And a de facto two-person race is precisely what Michaud needs to win.
Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Boston and Portland offices of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington. He can be reached at: