AUGUSTA – Libby Mitchell’s political career started on a Democratic wave in 1974 during the Watergate era.

It ended Tuesday with a third-place finish in the governor’s race as a Republican tide swept into power a new chief executive and GOP lawmakers who will control both branches of the Legislature.

At age 70, the first woman speaker of the House and current Senate president says it’s time to retire from politics.

But she doesn’t regret her decision to leave the comfort of the Senate and take a chance at becoming Maine’s first woman governor.

“What an extraordinary experience,” she said during an interview from her Vassalboro home. “I will treasure that opportunity.”

Mitchell finished a distant third on Election Day, losing to Gov.-elect Paul LePage, a Republican who won with 38 percent of the vote, and independent Eliot Cutler, who garnered 37 percent.

Mitchell finished with 19 percent, followed by independent Shawn Moody at 5 percent and independent Kevin Scott at 1 percent.

With anti-incumbent fever across the nation and voters desperate for change, Mitchell’s longtime public service proved a liability.

“As a Senate president with lots of experience in the State House, it wasn’t exactly the best profile to have on your brochure,” she said.

And while other prominent Democrats appeared to be in trouble — polls showed 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree in a close race with her Republican challenger — they ultimately prevailed by strong margins.

But Mitchell was in a five-way race, with former Democrat Cutler working to get a piece of her base, particularly in the final days.

Cutler surged during the last week of the campaign, a climb fueled in part by groups that had supported or endorsed Mitchell. The day before the vote, EqualityMaine, which had endorsed Mitchell earlier in the fall, sent out an e-mail urging their supporters to vote “for the pro-marriage candidate who you believe has the best chance of beating LePage.”

The e-mail also listed poll numbers that showed Mitchell in third.

As a senator, Mitchell voted for the gay-marriage bill that was ultimately overturned by voters. Cutler consistently said throughout the campaign that he would push for marriage equality.

For Mitchell, watching supporters leave her just days before the vote was tough.

“That was extraordinarily disappointing to me,” she said. “You don’t understand why people you fought for, and stood with, blink.”

Mitchell, a South Carolina native who moved to Maine in 1971, proved a popular legislator in her House and Senate districts throughout the years. She served 18 years in the House, beginning in 1974, and six years in the Senate. She also recently served nine years on the Vassalboro Board of Selectmen.

But in two bids for national office and now the governor’s race, she did not fare well with voters.

In 1984, she made a last-minute bid for national office as the Democratic nominee who challenged — and lost to — incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. William Cohen. Mitchell said she joined the race in February knowing she could not win, but that she wanted to raise issues important to Democrats.

In 1986, Mitchell took a job as director of the Maine State Housing Authority, a position she held until 1990. She then tried a second run for Washington, this time losing in a crowded Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District.

In June of this year, Mitchell won a statewide Democratic primary against three challengers with 34 percent of the vote.

But right from the start of the fall campaign, polls showed LePage in the lead.

“The climate was difficult,” Mitchell said. “It was all uphill.”

Mitchell’s highest poll ranking would come just days after the June primary, when her support was pegged at 36 percent. In various polls following, she hovered right around 30 percent, until her numbers started to drop in late October.

Unofficial results with 99 percent of precincts reporting showed 107,702 people voted for Mitchell, while Cutler got 205,601 votes and LePage 215,486.

Mitchell also chose to run as a Clean Election candidate, which meant she could receive up to $1.2 million to run her fall campaign. She said she didn’t have enough money for signs or to answer last-minute attacks.

“I felt sorely outspent at the end,” she said. “It may not have changed anything, but I was unable to defend myself.”

Mitchell did get support from former President Clinton, who twice came to the state to lead rallies on her behalf. She was endorsed by large unions, including state workers and teachers.

Moving forward, Mitchell said she will return to her husband’s law firm, where she will put the law degree she earned later in life to use. Jim Mitchell, who was re-elected as probate judge in Kennebec County, has a general practice in Augusta.

In her concession speech to supporters in Portland, Mitchell joked that the family had gone 0-3 on election night. Daughter Emily Mitchell was defeated in her bid for the state House seat in Vassalboro, and son Will lost in a Portland City Council race.

Mitchell said she will not come back to the State House as a lobbyist but will stay involved in issues she cares about. She said she traded “cordial” voice mail messages with LePage when it became clear he would win the race, but that she had not yet spoken with him directly.

“I hope Mr. LePage does very well, and I know he will,” she said.

To her supporters, Mitchell said thank you.

“I was so grateful for the people who stood by me,” she said. “They were not fair-weather supporters.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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