AUGUSTA — Maine voters in November will make history by either electing the nation’s first openly gay governor, electing its only independent governor or re-electing a Republican who is seen as one of the most vulnerable and volatile political leaders in the United States.

Less than six months before Election Day, political observers see independent Eliot Cutler’s impact as being key to race —- even though few give him much chance of winning.

“We’re in great shape,” said Cutler, the Cape Elizabeth independent consistently polling 20 percentage points or more behind incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud. “We were at 3 percent in public polls at this time in 2010. … We didn’t get to 20 percent in 2010 until October.”

Most polls show support for Cutler this year to be around 15 percent.

Cutler is obviously counting on a repeat of his stunning late-stage rise in 2010 to a slim second-place loss to LePage by less than 2 percentage points. However, some experts say that what Cutler sees as good news could be just the opposite because he is much more familiar to Mainers than he was four years ago. That makes him a target for his Democratic and Republican opponents rather than an outsider sneaking up on them.

Jim Melcher, an associate political science professor at University of Maine at Farmington, said the fact that all three candidates are familiar to Maine voters gives more credence to the polls and, as opposed to 2010, neither LePage nor Michaud faces a primary challenger, meaning their campaigns against each other — and Cutler — began earlier.

“The fact is, voters know these three candidates,” said Melcher. “That might make it more difficult for Cutler to gain support this year.”

University of Maine political science Associate Professor Mark Brewer agreed.

“At this particular moment in time, it’s still a legitimate three-way race,” said Brewer. “That being said, I think you’re more comfortable if you’re Mike Michaud or Paul LePage than if you’re Eliot Cutler.”

The polls

Cutler had between 7 and 14 percent support from June through October of 2010, according to a variety of polls. LePage, meanwhile, was consistently ahead of Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell, who came to the campaign directly from her post as Maine Senate president, by up to 18 percentage points.

Cutler’s rise, which many political observers attributed to a late switch from Mitchell by “anybody-but-LePage” voters when it became apparent that she could not beat LePage, made all the polls wrong by as many as 10 percentage points into late October, when a Critical Insights poll gauged Cutler’s support at less than 27 percent. He ended up with 35.9 percent of the vote.

LePage led Mitchell through most of the 2010 polling season, but this year has been for the most part in a statistical dead heat with Michaud. New data released Thursday from a Public Policy Polling survey showed Michaud with a slim lead over LePage, 43-39 percent, with Cutler attracting 15 percent and 3 percent undecided.

LePage’s support across the polls and the 2010 election results have remained virtually unchanged, with percentages in the high 30s. That shows that the governor’s base is rock-solid but concentrated and unlikely to change much. If it doesn’t increase, LePage’s path to victory requires that Cutler, a former Democrat, pull support from Michaud.

Democrats say some of the numbers behind the poll results are positive for Michaud. For example, a Public Policy Polling survey in April had 40 percent of respondents identifying themselves as Democrats, 32 percent as Republicans and 28 percent as independents.

Those numbers compared to registered voter tallies from the Secretary of State that show 32 percent of Maine voters are registered as Democrats, 27 percent as Republicans, 4 percent as Green Independents and 37 percent as unenrolled. When more poll respondents identify themselves as Democrats compared to actual numbers of registered Democrats, the Michaud campaign says it’s an indication that enthusiasm for Democrats in general is on the rise.

“There’s a huge enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats, which means our base is really excited,” said Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt. “A lot of independents are also excited and there’s not nearly as much enthusiasm among Republicans. That’s a huge advantage for us.”

In the past, whichever party didn’t hold the White House usually fared well in off-year elections. Gallup poll data released Thursday found that three in 10 registered voters say that when they vote in November, it will be to send a message that they oppose President Barack Obama, which is equal to the amount who said that before the 2010 election when a wave of new Republicans were elected to state and national offices. About 24 percent of the same poll’s respondents said they will vote to support Obama, which also is similar to the 2010 data.

What they’ll say

LePage won in 2010 after being outspent by his top two opponents. His campaign expects a repeat this year — and is using that fact to portray the Republican as a sound fiscal manager.

Cutler and Michaud, as of the Maine Ethics Commission’s most recent campaign finance reporting deadline on April 22, had raised $1.3 million and $1.4 million, respectively. Cutler’s total included $400,000 that he has loaned to his campaign. LePage trailed them in money raised so far with a total of $842,000. As for cash on hand on April 22, Michaud had $813,000, LePage had $618,000 and Cutler had $110,000.

National-level politics could also influence the race. Republicans intent on increasing their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and overtaking the U.S. Senate are campaigning primarily against Obama on issues ranging from the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to the roll-out of the partisan and controversial Affordable Care Act. That could pull high numbers of Republicans to the polls especially in a nonpresidential election year when turnout is generally expected to be lower than it was in 2012. That might be particularly true in Maine, where the state’s 2nd Congressional District seat in the more-conservative north is up for grabs and attracting national attention.

According to voting records kept by the secretary of state’s office, about 580,000 votes were cast in Maine in 2010, when LePage was elected and voters flipped the balance of power in the state House and Senate to Republican control for the first time in decades. In 2008 and 2012, by comparison, more than 725,000 Mainers voted.

On the other hand, there are state-level factors that could energize Democrats, chief among which is a backlash against LePage, whose brash personality has been seen as damaging Maine’s image, even by some who support his policies. In addition to being troubled by LePage’s tough talk, Mainers with disdain for “Washington-style” partisan gridlock have vilified him for issuing more than 180 vetoes and for his steadfast opposition to expanding the state’s Medicaid program under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Michaud is sure to focus on what Democrats have framed as LePage’s obstructionism and refusal to compromise or negotiate. From the day Michaud announced his candidacy, he has portrayed LePage’s behavior as an embarrassment to the state, a blustery presence that drives away progressive young entrepreneurs and innovators.

“There are a lot of people frustrated by the governor’s policies and his actions,” said Reinholt. “Even some Republicans want to change the leadership in Augusta.”

LePage and his supporters will use his denial of Medicaid expansion as evidence of the governor’s fiscal responsibility and will trumpet the 17,000 new private-sector jobs that have been created since he took office. LePage used his radio address this week on the latter theme, chastising Democrats who defeated his “ Open for Business Zones” bill, which would have offered hefty financial incentives to large businesses that locate at one of Maine’s two former Navy bases, because it also contained a “right to work” provision that they saw as an attempt to erode labor unions and workers’ rights.

“Job-killing liberals are blocking our progress,” said LePage in the radio address. “They want to grow welfare. We want to grow the economy. That’s why we will keep working to attract investment and business.”

LePage has used the term “liberals” to describe his opponents and “welfare” to describe a range of social services with increasing frequency. It harkens back to Republican President Ronald Reagan — whose portrait hangs in LePage’s State House office — who won campaigns by playing to emotions and using broad language rather than specific policy points.

Brent Littlefield, LePage’s campaign strategist, said Thursday that more voters will move toward LePage once they begin to understand some of his first-term accomplishments, including paying off debt to hospitals and reforming the state employee pension system.

“He ran for office saying he was a businessman and that he was not a decades-long politician,” said Littlefield. “His management style has been about doing more with less and as people focus on these facts, we’ll see more people coming to the governor.”

Cutler, meanwhile, says he stands outside the political gridlock on some of these issues and would serve in the Blaine House as negotiator in chief. Since last year, Cutler has rolled out several policy initiatives, including one last month that would lower property taxes while increasing and expanding the sales, meals and lodging taxes.

In November 2013 — a year before the general election and months after he announced his gubernatorial candidacy — Michaud publicly announced that he is gay. The campaign has downplayed his sexual orientation during appearances in Maine, but he has appeared at a number of out-of-state fundraisers hosted by gay-rights groups. His orientation could win over voters in more-liberal southern Maine, which strongly supported a successful same-sex marriage initiative in 2012. A victory in November would make him the first openly gay man elected governor in the United States.

However, Reinholt said Michaud’s appeal and campaign theme will be about his career of public service during which he’s proved to voters that they can trust him at his word.

“Every candidate in this race is established,” she said. “Voters know how they feel about them. This campaign is going to be won by a strong field program and our focus is getting Mike to talk to as many voters as possible between now and Election Day.”

Reinholt said LePage has been “banking on a three-way race,” without which he would have little chance.

“If this were a head-to-head campaign, I think everyone can agree this would be a much different situation,” she said.

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