A conservative Republican couple from Kansas has given $50,000 to a political action committee supporting independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, prompting an attack by Maine Democrats, who blasted Cutler for accepting money from “people who only back some of the most extreme politicians in the country.”

The state Democratic Party says the donation reflects the Republican strategy of backing Cutler’s campaign so he can divide the liberal vote with Democratic candidate Mike Michaud, paving the way for a re-election victory by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

But Cutler dismissed the criticism, saying he is old friends with the donor and doesn’t judge the political priorities of all of his contributors.

The donations of $25,000 each by James and Marilyn Hebenstreit to the Campaign for Maine PAC were disclosed in campaign finance reports made public Friday for the 22-day filing period between Oct. 1 and Oct. 21. The two also gave maximum $3,000 donations to Cutler’s campaign.

James Hebenstreit is chairman and CEO of Bartlett and Company, a Missouri-based producer of grain products with operations throughout the Midwest and southeastern United States, according to a profile of Hebenstreit listed with the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council, of which he is a member.

The contributions from the Hebenstreits were the only major donations collected recently by the Campaign for Maine PAC, which had reported raising only $4,500 for the 2½-month period that ended Sept. 20.

A phone message left for the Hebenstreits was not returned Friday.

Democrats described the Hebenstreits as supporters of tea party candidates who are among the most conservative in the Republican Party. They include Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, a candidate in that state’s 4th Congressional District who has drawn attention for her strong opposition to gay rights.

“The biggest special interest investing in Mr. Cutler right now is the right wing of the Republican Party,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said in a statement.

In a phone interview, Cutler said he met Hebenstreit in 1964 when the two shared a dormitory at Harvard University, and they remained close after college, living together in Washington, D.C., when Cutler worked for Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and Hebenstreit was in the Navy.

Cutler dismissed the Democratic criticism and said he last spoke with Hebenstreit when he asked him for a campaign donation more than a month ago.

“I’ve got a lot of donations from people who have only supported Republicans,” Cutler said. He declined to comment on the couple’s other donations, saying he would not expect his opponents to review and approve every single contributor to their campaigns.

The Hebenstreits did not give to Cutler during his 2010 gubernatorial run, financial records show. For the 2014 campaign cycle, the Hebenstreits have donated $179,900 to federal Republican candidates and national party committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The donations come at a critical time for Cutler, who has scaled back television advertising in recent days and in a fundraising email sent to supporters this week promised to match new donations dollar-for-dollar to support new TV ads before Election Day.

The donations also intensify the focus on Cutler’s potential to draw votes from Michaud, a potential effect that LePage acknowledged in the last televised gubernatorial debate, calling Cutler’s candidacy an “early Christmas present.”

Cutler has consistently trailed in the polls behind Michaud and LePage.

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