U.S. Sen. Angus King endorsed fellow independent Eliot Cutler for governor on Monday, saying Maine needs a chief executive who is not driven by partisan ideology.
King said during a news conference in Portland that Cutler is the only candidate who can overcome partisanship in Augusta and have the freedom to appoint Republicans, Democrats and independents alike to serve in his administration.
“The truth is, I believe an independent has significant advantages in governing,” King said. “An independent has to work with both sides. Why? Because you don’t have a team.”
He added, “I’m here today because Eliot Cutler is going to win this election and I want to be on the right side.”
King and Cutler traveled to Bangor for an afternoon appearance after the morning announcement in Portland.
It’s unclear how the endorsement will affect the race. Recent polls put Cutler a distant third behind incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. The polls currently give Michaud a slight lead over LePage, but it is within the margin of error. King himself expressed skepticism that one politician endorsing another would resonate with voters. He said no decisions have been made about his appearing in ads or other campaign-related activities with Cutler.
However, the endorsement could help Cutler raise money to support his campaign, nearly half of which has been self-financed. As of July 15, Cutler had raised $2 million and had $527,000 in cash on hand, compared with $1 million for Michaud and $917,000 for LePage.
King’s endorsement also might make it less likely that Cutler will drop out of the race, as many Democrats would like.
Andrew Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said that even though the endorsement will give Cutler control of the news cycle for only a day or two, it may set the tone of the campaign.
“It’s certainly not going to be something the Michaud campaign is going to like,” Smith said. “It’s going to make it much harder for them to get Cutler out of the race.”
Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt downplayed the significance of the endorsement.
“This endorsement doesn’t come as a surprise. Mike has a great deal of respect for Sen. King and his loyalty to a close friend like Eliot,” Reinholt said in a written statement. “Mike has always had a great working relationship with Sen. King and looks forward to continuing that relationship for the remainder of his time in Congress and when he is elected as the next governor of Maine this fall.”
Cutler’s campaign recently purchased TV ads on at least three television stations – WCSH in Portland as well as WABI and WLBZ in Bangor, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Cutler’s spokeswoman, Crystal Canney, would not say Monday whether the ads, one of which is expected to air Tuesday, will focus on the endorsement.
James Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, said the endorsement offers both benefits and risks for King. He has faced more criticism from conservatives than liberals, so backing Cutler – as well as Republican Sen. Susan Collins – is a way for him to reassert his independence, Melcher said.
On the other hand, Melcher said, King caucuses with Democrats in Washington, and some Maine Democratic voters who supported him in the 2012 election may be alienated by his endorsement of Cutler.
Cutler, who received King’s endorsement three days before the 2010 election and who endorsed King’s 2012 Senate bid, has told supporters that if they don’t think he can beat LePage when Election Day arrives, then they should vote for someone else. If Cutler’s position doesn’t improve, King could be pressured to reconsider his endorsement, Melcher said.
“(King is) running the risk of backing the wrong horse, whereas last time he jumped to Cutler when it looked like Cutler was clearly becoming the alternative to Paul LePage,” he said. “This has the potential to put Angus King in an awkward position if the scenario doesn’t change.”
King, in praising Cutler, said one of his greatest strengths is his national and international business experience. That experience best positions Cutler to lead the state during a time of economic transition, he said.
LePage’s campaign sought to portray King’s endorsement as a sign of displeasure with Michaud’s work in Congress.
“It is no surprise that Angus King would endorse someone other than Michaud after seeing how ineffective he is in Congress,” said LePage campaign spokesman Alex Willette. “The LePage campaign has always viewed this as a three-way race and today’s endorsement reflects the same position Cutler was in during the 2010 election.”
Cutler nearly beat LePage in 2010, losing by less than 2 percentage points. After trailing LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell throughout much of the campaign, Cutler made a late surge, which some attributed at least in part to King’s endorsement.
Democrats are quick to note that this year is different. They consider Michaud to be a stronger candidate than Mitchell, who lacked support in the rural 2nd Congressional District.
Some Democrats fear that a Cutler surge will be at Michaud’s expense, thus putting LePage back in office for another four years. LePage also has acknowledged that a strong showing from Cutler would benefit his re-election chances.
King and Cutler brushed off that fear. Cutler said he was “really tired” of hearing the phrase, “splitting the vote.”
“The calculation shouldn’t be who is going to take votes from who,” King said. “The question is, how to do you put votes together and bring us together as a state?”