March 6, 2013

Greg Kesich: Mike Michaud could make a tough run for Maine governor

If he chooses to run in 2014, the six-term congressman would pose a real challenge for LePage.

By Greg Kesich gkesich@pressherald.com
Editorial Page Editor

A few years ago I had lunch with a couple of reporters, including one visiting from Washington, D.C.

We asked him what he thought of Maine's congressional delegation, particularly our two Democrats in the House.

With a southern Maine bias, I thought I could predict the answer. Brainy veteran policy wonk Tom Allen of Portland would be an intellectual leader of his caucus, and still-new Mike Michaud would be learning the ropes and working through the seniority system.

But that's not what we heard.

The reporter said that it was hard to even know that Allen was in the Congress, not surprising for a member of the minority party in the winner-take-all House. But Michaud was something else.

He had assembled one of the best staffs around, and he was making some moves on the Veterans Affairs Committee. Michaud had won an earmark for a project in his district at a time when that kind of budgeting was going out of style. "This guy is a political animal!" the reporter said.

I often think of that conversation when I try to reconcile the somewhat shy and humble Mike Michaud I see in public with his long, successful career in politics.

The mill worker who never went to college was selected by his colleagues in the Maine Legislature as chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee and president of the Senate before winning six straight elections to Congress.

Every two years we hear that he is the most vulnerable incumbent on the ballot, and every time he wins his seat with a more impressive margin. You don't do that without being a political animal. Michaud is someone who's easy to underestimate.

That's why we should take notice when we hear that Michaud is "mulling" a run for Maine governor in 2014.

For starters, Michaud has demonstrated that he can raise the money he would need to try to unseat an incumbent governor, something that hasn't happened since Democrat Ken Curtis knocked off John Reed in 1966. For last year's race, Michaud out-raised his opponent, former Senate President Kevin Raye, 2-to-1.

And Michaud has what is usually considered a strong starting position, coming from the more dispersed 2nd Congressional District. The conventional wisdom is that it's easier for someone who is well known in the north to reach densely packed southern voters than it is for a politician from the 1st District to be known up north. The only southern Mainer to win a statewide race since John McKernan in 1990 is Angus King, who is exceptional in many ways.

Even though the only poling done so far in this race, by Public Policy Poling, shows Michaud losing to LePage if independent Eliot Cutler is in the race, hearing his name should give both of those likely contenders heartburn.

LePage will have hard time painting the former forklift driver with a high school diploma as an out-of-touch elitist. And as a fellow Franco-American, Michaud would erase whatever advantage the governor has in that community.

Cutler also has match-up problems. His campaign narrative relies on the image of two extremist parties hopelessly out of touch and needing a centrist to pull the best policy ideas from each.

Michaud doesn't fit in that story. He comes from the center of his party, belonging to the conservative "Blue Dog" caucus, not the progressive one.

It may be that Cutler would have to run to the left of Michaud, at least on social issues. Over the course of his career, Michaud established a moderately pro-life voting record on abortion, something the pro-choice Cutler may try to exploit, especially with women voters in southern Maine.

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