Former President Bill Clinton delivered a blistering critique of Republican Gov. Paul LePage while championing the candidacy of Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud during a sweltering rally at the Portland Expo on Tuesday night.
Clinton’s speech before an audience of about 1,600 Democratic supporters was billed by the Michaud campaign as another sign that the Democrat’s bid for the Blaine House was garnering national attention. Clinton’s message buttressed a common theme in Michaud’s campaign against LePage.
“Everywhere in America where people are following inclusive visions and cooperative decision-making they’re making good things happen,” Clinton said.
Republicans framed Clinton’s speech as a ho-hum affair and called Michaud an “obscure” six-term congressman who needed the assistance of the two-time president to boost his campaign. They also have noted that Clinton spoke in Maine twice in 2010 when Libby Mitchell, the Democratic nominee, came in third in the five-way gubernatorial contest.
One of the biggest national draws for Democrats, Clinton is frequently deployed to assist candidates across the country. On Tuesday, he showed why his appearances are sought regardless of the candidate, the office that’s at stake, or in this case, the heat and humidity.
Roughly 30 minutes after one supporter was taken out of the gymnasium, feeling ill from the intense heat and humidity, Clinton launched into a 22-minute speech marked by long anecdotes punctuated with punch lines that were met with loud applause. Michaud sat on stage as Clinton spoke.
“I think this guy will be an unbelievable governor,” Clinton said.
He did not mention LePage by name, but by reputation.
The former president outlined his three keys to political success, ending with the Democrats’ most common criticism of LePage – that he’s divisive.
“Have we come together or drifted apart?” Clinton asked. “If the answer is no, then all the rest is all just background music.”
The former Arkansas governor said Michaud has all three attributes.
“He has the tactics he knows will work, which is work with everyone to get something done,” Clinton said.
He criticized LePage for rejecting the expansion of Medicaid, known here as MaineCare, through the Affordable Care Act.
“Ideology makes you do dumb things,” Clinton said.
Divisive leaders “get and seek power by terrifying other people,” he said.
Michaud spoke for about 20 minutes and highlighted his support for veterans. The ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee has come under fire from Republicans for not doing more to prevent the scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Michaud, who played a part in a bipartisan bill to address those problems, said the bill’s enactment was one of his proudest moments.
“Passing that bill wasn’t easy,” Michaud said. “Even in one of the most divisive Congresses we were able to put partisanship aside and focus on getting the job done. Here in Maine, what was Gov. LePage doing? What he was trying to do was score political points.”
Michaud added, “It’s more than our values and vision that divide Gov. LePage and me. It’s also our temperament, our leadership style. It’s a fact that I’m committed to bringing us together and he’s focused on dividing us.”
Veterans issues have been a focal point of the campaign. Michaud has partially built his political reputation on his support of veterans, and Republicans have sought to chip away at that reputation.
Skip McIntosh, a veteran from Levant, told a story about his “unceremonious” return from Vietnam. McIntosh said he needed to be dragged to an event commemorating one particular battle. He said Michaud was one of the first people to greet him.
“There were no cameras. He shows up because he cares,” McIntosh said.
Republicans fired off statements in social media before Clinton took the stage.
“Seems like just yesterday I responded to enormous Clinton rally in Maine bolstering (the Democratic gubernatorial candidate) … who got 19% of the vote,” LePage political consultant Brent Littlefield tweeted before the speech.
Clinton stumped for Mitchell even as her campaign began to crater late in 2010. This race for governor has differed in its length – it began over a year ago – its expense and its national profile.
LePage, seeking his second term since his victory in 2010, has drawn national interest from allies and foes. The governor already has gained significant financial assistance and resources from the Republican Governors Association, a nonprofit group that spent over $1 million in 2010 and has already surpassed that figure this year.
Also, LePage is being targeted by an array of progressive interest groups attempting to make his first term in the Blaine House his last. Last week the Portland Press Herald reported that NextGen Climate, a group funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, was organizing a full-fledged campaign to support Michaud and oppose LePage. Steyer’s group has vowed to spend at least $50 million in key races across seven states, including Maine.
And Michaud’s candidacy has drawn backing from groups supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender causes. Michaud could be the first openly gay candidate elected governor in the country.
Clinton’s visit Tuesday followed a decision by the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices that will allow new, individual donors to give up to $3,000 to Michaud, LePage and independent candidate Eliot Cutler. The commission’s decision was designed to level the playing field for Cutler, whose donors were originally limited to $1,500 contributions. Party candidates, who typically face contested primaries, were allowed $1,500 for the primary and $1,500 for the general election. Neither Michaud nor LePage had a primary this year, and four donors to Cutler successfully challenged the law capping his donors at $1,500 in federal court.
Cutler’s campaign did not respond to specifics in either Michaud’s or Clinton’s speeches. Instead, it offered a statement about how visits by national figures were more about those individual’s political ambitions and not what’s important to Maine.
“Whether it’s Clinton setting the table for Hillary (Clinton’s) presidential run or Chris Christie setting his own table for a presidential run, these visits are just more politics as usual,” said Crystal Canney, Cutler’s communications director. “Clinton visited twice for Libby Mitchell in 2010 with no benefit. The problems of Maine people will not be solved by an ex-president of the United States, by the governor of New Jersey, or by their political parties. Maine people, regardless of party, want a governor who will work for them and has a plan for the state, and in this election Eliot Cutler is the only candidate who does.”
Clinton did not mention Cutler during his speech. None of the Democrats who spoke Tuesday did, which aligns with the party’s attempt to portray the contest as one between Michaud and LePage.
The Maine Republican Party did not take any shots at Clinton, instead praising him for welfare reforms that he enacted as president, some of which LePage is campaigning on now.
“President Clinton represents the intellectual curiosity and ideological independence that Congressman Michaud so thoroughly lacks,” David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, said in a written statement. “It’s telling that even after winning only two statewide races in the past quarter-century, Maine Democrats are more enthusiastic about a president who left office 13 years ago than their current candidate for governor.”
Clinton’s speech was preceded by other Democratic candidates either seeking re-election or office for the first time. While each talked up their own candidacies, most of them took the opportunity to ding LePage, too. Candidate Shenna Bellows, who is taking on U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, said LePage was an example of what happens when a Republican is in control.
State Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who is running against Republican Bruce Poliquin for the 2nd Congressional District seat currently held by Michaud, focused primarily on issues that will be important to Democrats in November.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is being challenged by Republican Isaac Misiuk, slammed Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives for their lawsuit against President Obama. Pingree also criticized LePage for policies that she said rolled back Democrats’ progress at the state level, including environmental regulations and a law designed to phase out toxic chemicals from children’s products.
Michaud’s appearance with Clinton will be followed by another meeting with a high-profile Democrat. Vice President Joe Biden, who will tour the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery on Wednesday, will also meet with Michaud.