Vote or Quit Bitchin’ 2010

illustration/Brett Newburn

Will Cutler give LePage the Governorship?
By Chris Busby

Paul LePage is an asshole, but due to a loophole in Maine’s Constitution, that does not disqualify the Republican gubernatorial candidate from holding the state’s highest office.

To the contrary, a significant number of Mainers believe the Mayor of Waterville’s intemperate temperament is exactly what we need in Augusta: a brash leader who’ll slash taxes and regulations to bring jobs to the state and keep more money in our pockets.

If LePage also strips gays and lesbians of their human rights protections, green-lights a nuclear power plant in Brunswick, and repeals just about every gun law on the books, that’s fine with those folks, too.

Sound OK to you? Well, get ready for all that and more, because a month before Election Day, all signs point to a LePage victory.

Mainers have typically rejected candidates from the tip of the right wing, preferring moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to characters like Chandler Woodcock, who got his clock cleaned against Gov. John Baldacci four years ago.

This year, there are two new developments in play that make a LePage victory more than likely.

The first is the rise of the Tea Party, a fad that’s lifted the political fortunes of fringe candidates all over the country. Tea Party activists catapulted LePage over his opponents in the Republican primary last spring, and recession-weary voters sympathetic to the TP’s angry, anti-government message are squarely in LePage’s camp.

The second is Eliot Cutler, the fabulously wealthy lawyer and longtime Democrat running for governor as an independent.

Several polls conducted last month pegged LePage’s support at over 40 percent of likely voters, about a dozen percentage points ahead of his closest rival, Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell.

Cutler’s share of the pie: about a dozen percentage points.

In other words, if Cutler wasn’t in the race, the Democrat and the Republican would probably be running about even. Though Cutler appears to have almost no chance of winning, his presence threatens to ensure that Mitchell will lose, too.

Two other independents are also on the ballot, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott. Moody, the likeable founder of a chain of collision repair shops, has been polling at about 5 percent. His blue-collar credentials are probably pulling some Democrats away from Mitchell, but not enough to be a decisive factor. Scott, chairman of the water district in the small town of Andover, may have more driving convictions (35) than votes at this point.

It’s worth noting that a poll taken in late September showed Mitchell and LePage running neck-and-neck, with Cutler sliding below the 10-percent mark. But it’s also worth noting that Mitchell didn’t gain any ground in that survey — fewer than a third of those polled said they will vote for her — even though it was conducted right after Bill Clinton (the most popular politician in America, according to a different poll) headlined a rally for her in South Portland.

A more reliable gauge of the race can be taken with your own eyes. Drive around southern Maine and notice which candidate has the most bumper stickers and lawn signs (that’s lawn signs on private property, put there by voters, not those cluttering the roadside courtesy of paid campaign staff).

By that measure, there’s no contest: it’s LePage by a mile. And we’re talking about southern Maine, the liberal half of the state.

It’s especially telling to note all the cars that are still sporting Obama stickers, but no sign of support for Mitchell. Like Obama’s victory two years ago, a win by Mitchell would also be historic — she’d be Maine’s first female governor. Yet there’s no indication the prospect of breaking the gender barrier at the Blaine House is inspiring voters of either sex to back her candidacy.

The so-called “enthusiasm gap” between LePage and Mitchell is (pardon the pun) yawning.

LePage’s supporters back their man with the fervency of true believers, feeding off the anger he radiates like a furnace. Cutler also makes a point of expressing anger at Augusta, but he tempers his rage with dollops of optimism, pledging to make Maine “the comeback state of the next decade.”

The crusading outsider is not a part Mitchell can play. She essentially is the political establishment, having served in the Legislature for the better part of the past four decades. A former Speaker of the Maine House, she currently serves as President of the Senate. A resident of Vassalboro, she literally represents Augusta in Augusta.

Mitchell’s message is upbeat. She comes across as a sweet-tempered Southern lady who’s too polite to dwell on unpleasantries like the looming $800 million state budget shortfall and multibillion-dollar public pension funding fiasco.

Mitchell’s platform doesn’t call for major changes to the way state government operates. She stresses the need for greater efficiency and accountability, just like the other four candidates in the race. Her most radical proposal calls for merging the Department of Economic and Community Development with the State Planning Office to create a new Governor’s Office of Strategic Initiatives and Job Creation. (You still awake?)

LePage, whose day job is general manager of the Marden’s Surplus & Salvage chain, is promising to reduce or eliminate just about every tax on the books. His campaign is vague about which state services would have to be cut or eliminated as a result, pledging instead to perform audits and make all state departments and programs justify their costs and expenditures.

(LePage has proposed one specific cut: denying welfare benefits to felons after they’ve served their time. It’s unclear if this would ultimately save any money, but such a policy’s effect on the recidivism rate is predictable.)

Cutler’s plan is similar to Mitchell’s in many respects: reduce health care costs by promoting healthy lifestyles, make state government more efficient. And his positions on hot-button issues are largely the same, too: both support gay rights and abortion rights, oppose nuclear power and casinos, and both supported the tax reform measure approved by the Legislature but nixed by voters at the polls this past summer.

Cutler would take a different approach on energy (he proposes to create a new public power authority that would borrow money to support green energy projects), and he wants to merge Maine’s community college and university systems. He also favors allowing charter schools to operate in Maine. Mitchell, a former teacher supported by the state teachers union, is against that.

Still, the difference between Cutler and Mitchell is nothing compared to the difference between their political philosophies and those of the pro-life, pro-nuke LePage, whose hostility toward the media, the president, and the truth has become national news.

Given the shape of the race thus far, Cutler could be the spoiler, handing the Blaine House to a Gov. LePage

“I think the spoiler here is Libby Mitchell, not Eliot Cutler,” Cutler said during an interview at his campaign headquarters on Commercial Street. “I know I will have far greater success in attracting votes from independents and  moderate Republicans than she will.”

“I think Libby’s been a marvelous public servant,” continued Cutler, who’s spent most the past three decades working as a high-powered attorney on land-use issues (many of them large public works projects). “But I frankly don’t think that Libby Mitchell is committed to the kind of reform of our government, the transformation of our economy … that we need in order to move the state forward.”

Mitchell’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

At a televised debate last month, another candidate spoke of the state’s direction.

“If you believe the state of Maine is going in the right direction and you believe in the status quo, you should not vote for me on November 2nd,” he said. “If you believe we need to reverse direction, please remember me on November 2nd: Paul LePage.”

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