There is no such thing as an “off year” in elections any more. As soon as one campaign ends, positioning and posturing begins for the next. Maine’s coming gubernatorial contest is a case in point.

Gov. LePage filed for re-election in August 2011, more than three years before the coming November 2014 contest. Some would say Eliot Cutler began running the day after he lost in 2010. And while Mike Michaud is a newcomer to the race, his campaign is quickly firing on all cylinders.

Last week, in fact, nearly 14 months before Election Day, Rep. Michaud released a three-minute biographical video. Eliot Cutler released a 104-page policy book titled “A State of Opportunity.” And Gov. LePage began auditioning major campaign themes regarding welfare fraud and his denial of Medicaid expansion.

In other words, the race is on.

Sure, campaign operatives concede that most voters won’t begin paying close attention until after Labor Day 2014, but campaigning in the Internet and social media age requires seizing every early opportunity — no matter how minor or fleeting — to shape a candidate’s image and influence the issues.

What’s more, because ardent partisans are highly motivated to either support or defeat the governor, they’re engaging early. In that way, the passion and intensity of campaign 2014 is more apt to smack of a recall election, even if turnout will more closely follow a traditional off-year contest.

Michaud begins campaign 2014 in a strong position. He has put together a talented and experienced campaign team, has ample capacity to raise money, and begins with a solid base of support in the 2nd Congressional District.

In 2012, he drew nearly 190,000 votes running for re-election in the second district. By contrast, Paul LePage won the Blaine House with 215,000 votes from the whole state. That gives Michaud considerable room to grow additional support in the 1st District.

That’s exactly why Michaud’s campaign is introducing the congressman to voters in southern Maine with its biographical video. It’s not only establishing Michaud’s rationale for running, but also positioning him as a likable, reasonable and empathetic champion of the working class with some bipartisan bona fides.

Before even formally launching his campaign, Cutler is taking a markedly different approach, releasing a policy book that outlines “a plan to build a healthier, smarter, stronger, younger and more prosperous Maine.”

Cutler’s move is unconventional and not without risks. First, it gives his rivals something to shoot at as the campaign unfolds, and making a document resonate with voters will be a challenge.

But Cutler’s approach also smartly exploits an abiding weakness of both parties, namely that none has advanced a real legislative policy agenda, especially as it relates to job creation and economic growth.

As a result, the policy book is Cutler’s attempt to position himself as the candidate of forward-looking ideas, contrasting him with both LePage and Michaud, whom detractors see as either hopelessly ideological (LePage) or lacking substantive accomplishments (Michaud).

LePage, meanwhile, began testing major themes for his re-election over the last two weeks, focusing primarily on the identification and prosecution of welfare fraud (an effort that costs Mainers more money than it saves) and the vilification of potential Medicaid expansion beneficiaries.

After squandering nearly every opportunity to grow his support with three years of bombast and insults, the governor’s campaign team understands that the base is all that remains. As a result, LePage’s “red meat” conservative appeals will underpin his re-election effort, continually stoking the 38-percenters in an effort to keep them enraged and engaged.

Curiously, whereas Michaud’s and Cutler’s campaigns both hinge on electoral growth, the governor’s campaign is dependent on voter division.

Yes, the governor needs Cutler and Michaud to divide the Democratic, unenrolled and reasonable-Republican vote to create his path to victory. But division is also the basis for the governor’s campaign against “welfare.” (A term he uses to pejoratively and wrongly describe any form of government assistance, from Medicaid to unemployment insurance to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.)

The governor’s rhetoric is a deliberate attempt to pit Mainer against Mainer, blaming our state’s working poor for Maine’s fiscal challenges and the hardship so many are experiencing.

Tactically, it’s a sure-fire way to gin up his base, but it needlessly stereotypes families in tough circumstances who are simply desperate for a hand. Regardless, the governor will almost surely bang the “welfare” drum all the way to next November.

So even though it’s only September 2013, buckle yourselves in. Campaign 2014 is under way and, like it or not, we’re all along for the ride.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @CuzziMJ


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