Independent candidate Eliot Cutler vowed to stay in the race for governor Wednesday, but told supporters during a hastily scheduled news conference that they should vote for someone else if they don’t think he can win next week.
Hours later, Sen. Angus King, who gave a key endorsement to Cutler last summer, said he is now backing U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud for governor because it is clear that Cutler cannot beat the Democrat or Republican Gov. Paul LePage in Tuesday’s election.
“The good news is that we still have a chance to elect a governor who will represent the majority of Maine people: my friend and colleague, Mike Michaud,” King said in a written statement. “And today, I’d like to offer him my support.”
Michaud welcomed King’s endorsement, saying it would help generate momentum in the final days of the campaign.
“I’m grateful and humbled by Sen. King’s endorsement and his support,” Michaud said in a written statement. “Sen. King and I have worked together for many years, and we’ve always tried to put the best interests of our state first. With only six days left before Election Day, momentum is building and if we all stand together I believe that we can bring the change we need to Augusta. This is a close race, and we need every voter to show up on Tuesday.”
Cutler invited the media to his Milk Street campaign office on short notice Wednesday morning, prompting widespread speculation that he would announce his withdrawal from the race and urge his supporters to vote for either of his opponents.
Instead, Cutler explained that he detests the idea of releasing voters because he feels they are always free to do what they want. However, he did acknowledge the multiple polls showing him running a distant third behind LePage and Michaud, who are locked in a close race.
“I truly believe in democracy and the ultimate authority of voters to vote for whomever they want for whatever reason, and I don’t think any voter, whether a supporter of mine or not, now needs or ever has needed my permission or my blessing to vote for one of my opponents,” Cutler said. “Nevertheless, I want to reiterate what I said six months ago: Anyone who has supported me, but who now worries that I cannot win and is thereby compelled by their fears or by their conscience to vote instead for Mr. LePage or Mr. Michaud, should do so.”
The confusion caused by the news conference prompted Cutler’s campaign to issue a Q&A to reporters afterward to explain what the candidate did and did not say.
Four years ago, Cutler had overtaken Democrat Libby Mitchell in the polls by this point. Many felt that if the election had been held one week later, Cutler might have come out ahead. Instead, he lost to LePage by about 10,000 votes.
Cutler has been counting on a surge this year and expected to get a boost after the debates, but it hasn’t happened. Several recent independent polls show Cutler lagging far behind LePage and Michaud. A poll conducted for the Portland Press Herald by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center from Oct. 15-21 gave Cutler 16 percent of the vote, while LePage had 45 percent and Michaud 35 percent, with a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points.
The same poll, using hypothetical one-on-one matchups, showed LePage beating Michaud, 50 percent to 43 percent, and edging Cutler, 48 percent to 47 percent, with the same margin of error.
Supporters of Michaud have been calling on Cutler to drop out of the race for weeks over fears that the two will divide voters on the left and open the door for LePage to win a second term. Those calls have been growing louder this week, particularly since the Republican Governors Association began running ads that criticize Michaud and praise Cutler.
Shortly after Cutler’s news conference, a small group of his supporters urged him to bow out in a news conference of their own on the Portland.
“I, at least, have come to a sad conclusion,” said Jim Shaffer, a Cape Elizabeth businessman and registered Republican who said he supported Cutler in 2010 and again, until recently, this year. “He’s not going to win this three-way election.”
Cutler spoke to the concerns about his playing a “spoiler” role Wednesday.
“Four years ago, I believed we had beaten back the politics of fear. I was wrong,” he said. “Indeed, the politics of fear and negative ads have returned with a vengeance beyond my imagination … fears that have been amplified by more than $10 million in attack ads financed by special interest PACs that don’t give a damn about Maine’s future, but only whether the winner of this election has a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ after his name.”
Cutler alternated between resignation and defiance.
“I am not standing down … and neither should those voters whose consciences compel them to cast a vote for me,” he said. “I am a realist about my chances, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to kow-tow to party politics and allow a bunch of polls to drown out the voices of thousands of Maine people who believe that standing for principle, ideals and ideas makes you an American and not a spoiler.”
After King announced he was switching his allegiance to Michaud, Cutler issued a written statement saying he was disappointed. He repeated the statement he made at his news conference earlier in the day, that supporters who think he cannot win should vote for LePage or Michaud.
Alex Willette, spokesman for the LePage campaign, said King’s move was not a surprise because the independent U.S. senator caucuses with Democrats in Washington, D.C., and has what Willette described as a highly partisan voting record.
“Our campaign is going to continue doing what we have done for months, reaching out to all Maine voters, asking them for their vote to continue the economic recovery that has occurred under the leadership of Governor Paul LePage,” Willette said in a written statement.
University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer said he found Cutler’s announcement puzzling.
“It wasn’t exactly what I thought he was going to do, but what comes out of this is likely the same as if he were to withdraw,” Brewer said. “It could be that he can’t bring himself to say he’s out and can’t win.”
Even if Cutler had officially dropped out of the race, his name would be on the ballot. And unless he made a formal declaration to the Secretary of State’s Office announcing his withdrawal, anyone who already has cast an absentee ballot for him would not be able to switch their vote, said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
Brewer believes that most Cutler supporters who have held out now will rethink their choice.
“And that’s better news for Michaud than LePage, no doubt about it,” he said.
Staff Writers Randy Billings and Matt Byrne contributed to this report.