Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler on Friday repeated his claim that the Maine Democratic Party asked him three years ago to run as a Democrat in 2014 and assured him that they could “clear the field” of potential primary challengers.
Democrats strongly deny Cutler’s claim, which he made Wednesday before a small gathering of supporters in Kennebunkport and was first reported by Seacoast Online.
Cutler also said in an interview with the Press Herald that he was asked by Republicans to join their party.
Charlie Webster, the former chairman of the Maine Republican Party, also denied Cutler’s claim. However, operatives within the Republican Party seized on the media reports to criticize 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the leading challenger to Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Cutler’s comments and Republicans’ reaction served as a double-barreled attack against Michaud, who was cast as a second-rate candidate and the party’s second choice to Cutler.
The narrative serves the independent and LePage, both of whom need either Michaud’s support to drop or Cutler’s to dramatically rise to improve their chances in November.
Cutler told the Press Herald that he met with Ben Grant, the chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, in late May 2011.
He said the two had a “perfectly pleasant conversation” over lunch at the Salt Exchange in Portland about a variety of issues stemming from the 2010 campaign, including negative campaign fliers.
Cutler said they were on a post-lunch walk down Commercial Street when Grant asked him to run as a Democrat, promising to the clear the field of other party candidates.
“I remember this so well because I was taken aback by it,” Cutler said. “I remember stopping on the sidewalk on Commercial and said, ‘First of all, Ben, I am not a Democrat and … secondly, I don’t want to govern as a Democrat.”
Grant strongly rebutted the claim on Friday, saying the party had been focused solely on recruiting either Michaud or Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who represents the 1st Congressional District.
“His claim is 100 percent false,” Grant said in an interview. “I never spoke to him about anything like this. I never even considered it.”
Michaud and Pingree “were our two best, most viable options within the party, and we’ve been proved right by the polls we’ve seen so far,” Grant said.
Cutler said he is confident of his recollection of the conversation and would sign an affidavit to back it.
“There are some things you remember very clearly and other things you don’t. This conversation I remember very, very clearly,” Cutler said.
Grant was equally emphatic in his denial Friday.
“I’ve never denied that I met with him, and I didn’t earlier today,” he said. “But I never told or encouraged him to run for governor as a Democrat. I’ve never thought for one second that he should be the governor of Maine.”
Grant was asked if a party elder or major donor would have had some kind of meeting to encourage him to run as a Democrat.
“Of course, it’s possible,” he said, “but no one has ever told me about such a meeting.”
He added, “Even if it did (occur), donors don’t speak for the party unless I ask them to deliver a message, which I never did in this case.”
Severin Beliveau, a longtime donor to the Maine Democratic Party and prominent State House lobbyist, said Friday that he had several conversations with Cutler about running as a Democrat, but none was at the request of party leaders. He said the discussions occurred before Michaud entered the race, and efforts have since shifted to getting Cutler out of the contest.
Beliveau also disputed Cutler’s claim that Grant could provide a guarantee to “clear the field” in May 2011, the date of the meeting.
“I don’t know anybody who would be able to say with any authority that they can assure anybody of a cleared field more than three years before the election,” Beliveau said. “That’s (Cutler’s) ego. We all have egos, but his is in another world, in the ether somewhere.”
Cutler campaign manager Ted O’Meara was quick to attack Grant’s credibility in light of an ethics complaint filed against the party by Democrat Steve Woods. Woods was the first to declare his candidacy for the Blaine House in 2012, but withdrew from the race in August 2013 before declaring his candidacy for the state Senate. Woods said the decision was the result of a signed written agreement between him and Grant. Woods provided a copy of the document to the Portland Press Herald in June. Woods said it was designed to ensure that Michaud didn’t have a primary challenger.
Grant acknowledged that the agreement was authentic, but disputed Woods’ claim that the party violated the deal by supporting Woods’ opponent in the state Senate race.
“It’s pretty clear to us that Ben Grant isn’t telling the truth,” O’Meara said. “You only have to look at what they did to Steve Woods. They muscled him out of the race and then threw him under the bus in the (state) Senate race. I don’t think Ben Grant has a lot of credibility here. This is the way they operate. They like to make a lot of backroom deals.”
David Farmer, Michaud’s senior adviser, said Cutler’s statements are a sign of desperation.
A poll conducted in mid-June on behalf of the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram showed Michaud with a slight lead over LePage, but within the 4.3 percent margin of error. Cutler was a distant third and Democrats have repeatedly questioned the viability of his campaign.
“I mean, Eliot Cutler is polling at 13 percent and he’s starting to swing a little wildly trying to connect on something,” Farmer said, referring to an internal poll conducted by the Michaud campaign.
Cutler’s attack is similar to those being advanced by the Maine Republican Party, which pounced on the news Friday that Cutler may have been the Democrats’ first choice.
“This raises the question, how many candidates did the Democrats court before finally settling on back-bencher congressman Michael Michaud?” Republican spokesman David Sorensen said in a written statement. “Was Michaud their second choice, third choice, sixth choice, or even 10th choice candidate?”
Sorensen went on to cast Cutler as the most progressive candidate in the race, a framing reminiscent of the 2010 contest and designed to divide progressive and left-leaning independent voters. LePage and his supporters have acknowledged that Cutler’s rise in particular is key to the governor’s re-election.
Cutler also met with Webster, the former chairman of the Maine Republican Party, in the spring of 2011.
Webster said he met with Cutler as a courtesy.
“Even today, I don’t know what the meeting was about. We just talked about issues,” Webster said. “Maybe he was feeling me out.”
Cutler said he was asked by Webster why he didn’t run as a Republican. But Webster denied that claim.
“I could see why the Democrats would because he’s basically a Democrat,” Webster said. “But why would Republicans want a candidate who doesn’t share our views? That doesn’t make sense.”
Meanwhile, there was confirmation Friday that Cutler himself may have attempted to clear the field of potential Democratic challengers last year.
He traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 2013 to personally inform Michaud that he planned to run again.
Peter Chandler, Michaud’s chief of staff, said Friday that Cutler had contacted the congressional office to arrange a meeting and that it took place Jan. 3, 2013, at a Washington coffee shop. The meeting occurred a day after Cutler registered as a potential gubernatorial candidate with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. The independent would not formally declare his candidacy until June 6 on WGAN radio in Portland. Michaud had not yet declared either, but was widely considered a potential recruit by the Maine Democratic Party, which had approached him to enter the race.
Chandler said that Cutler spent much of the meeting praising Michaud’s congressional work, making particular note of his leadership position on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“One would surmise that the purpose of the meeting was that Mike would be a formidable opponent and that (Cutler) was there to impress upon the congressman to stay where he was,” Chandler said.
Both Cutler and Michaud made their candidacies official by the fall of 2013. Concern by LePage opponents that another three-way race would give the governor a second term was further spurred by a poll that asked respondents if they would be more likely to vote for Cutler if he ran against Michaud in the Democratic primary.
O’Meara and Cutler spokeswoman Crystal Canney were asked Friday if the campaign had conducted a poll that asked such a question. Canney said she would not discuss internal campaign strategy.
Finance reports from the Ethics Commission show that Cutler’s campaign spent nearly $19,500 on polling, including one in late November. The pollster for Michaud’s campaign was paid more than $12,200 and was in the field earlier that fall.