Independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler may get his debate after all.
He also might end up debating himself.
Holly Roberts, director of the Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce, said her organization and its 560 or so members are planning to host a gubernatorial debate on Aug. 27, “no matter what.”
As of Friday, though, only Cutler, who is running a distant third in the polls, had committed to the event, which was announced just over a week ago, on July 31.
Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign told the chamber that the candidate will participate only if Republican Gov. Paul LePage is there.
“Mike only wants to debate the full field,” Michaud spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said. “It’s not a debate, without the incumbent and sitting governor.”
LePage’s campaign had not given the chamber an answer, and spokesman Alex Willette did not explain Friday why the campaign hadn’t responded by Wednesday, the chamber’s deadline. Instead, Willette criticized Michaud.
“Why does Michael Michaud always make his decision based on what the governor decides to do? What is he afraid of?” Willette said.
The jockeying is part of the strategizing that goes into deciding whether Maine’s candidates for governor – who have so far committed to six debates in October – should climb onto a stage this early to express and contrast their positions. While many voters don’t pay attention to political campaigns until after Labor Day, an increase in absentee balloting and early voting in Maine may make earlier debates more relevant.
Roberts said chamber members are frustrated with the political gamesmanship and are prepared to go forward with their debate even if only one candidate shows up.
“The Chamber and members of our communities, regardless of political affiliation, feel strongly that debates provide an opportunity to directly compare and contrast the candidates and their platforms for which there is no substitute,” the chamber wrote in a statement announcing the debate. “While there are approximately four televised debates scheduled for late in the campaign season there appears to be a degree of reluctance by some candidates to participate in any other debates throughout the state. This is concerning because both the Republican and Democratic Parties promote early voting, which as of right now begins prior to voters being provided with opportunities to see candidates debate each other.”
The Michaud campaign expressed concern over how the York chamber communicated its debate plans.
“We receive hundreds of requests each week, and in every instance – including the six debates we’ve confirmed to date – the organizers reach out in advance,” Michaud campaign manager Matt McTighe said in an email to Roberts. “And then the Congressman’s scheduler works closely with them to find dates that work for everyone. In all my years of doing campaigns, I’ve never seen anyone announce a debate via press conference without talking to the campaigns first.”
In 2010, there were 18 debates or forums that featured all the candidates, beginning in early September and running through the end of October. In that race, LePage, Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell were not as well known statewide. This year’s slate of candidates features a sitting governor, a six-term congressman and a man who ran for statewide office four years ago.
The first debate of the six now scheduled is set for Oct. 8.
The Cutler campaign has said that’s simply too late, particularly because absentee voting will be well underway. In the 2010 election, during which LePage defeated Cutler by about 10,000 votes, 132,754 Mainers, or about 23 percent of all voters, cast absentee ballots before election day.
Ronald Schmidt, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine, said Aug. 27 might be a little early for a debate, but also said Oct. 8 is probably a little late to begin.
“The last month is really when voters are going to be paying attention. Before then, people have ways to tune it out,” he said. “But it seems to me that the (York chamber) is doing what New Hampshire and Iowa do during presidential elections, that is get out ahead of a high-profile election.”
The three campaigns all have their strategies for how they plan to handle debates and, so far, things have gone as expected, Schmidt said.
LePage and Michaud, he said, see less need to debate, particularly with Cutler, who they view as a spoiler. Cutler, by contrast, has more to gain from debates, Schmidt said, and sees himself as superior in that arena.
John Porter, president and CEO of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, said his organization had a similar experience to the Greater York Region Chamber in trying to schedule a debate. He said LePage declined the invitation to the Oct. 23 event, which prompted Michaud to also back out.
“We’re still holding that date,” Porter said. “But in the meantime, we’ve asked the candidates to come speak to members one on one.”
Porter doesn’t think the Bangor chamber would hold a debate unless all the candidates are there.
“I don’t know if it would be worth it,” he said.
Roberts said her members see more value in putting the candidates side by side, though her organization doesn’t mind going forward out of principle. She also said the chamber reached out to the campaigns before its press conference, but did not wait for their answers.
“This may not be the way some organizations have done it in the past and we may be setting precedent, but we think it’s important,” she said.
Schmidt said the York chamber’s approach of publicly calling on the candidates to debate could work.
“There will be some dancing, but public pressure sometimes works,” he said. “And the other thing is, it could benefit voters in general if the debate really focuses on policy questions.”
Roberts is confident. “I still think you’ll see all the candidates on the 27th,” she said.