LEWISTON — The battle over abortion is heating up again in the Maine governor’s race.

Eliot Cutler, the independent in the race, said he would support allowing MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to cover the cost of abortion services for women eligible for the government-sponsored health care program.

Cutler said it’s a position he’s long held but which the Maine media hadn’t fully picked up on.

He also said his opponents in the race, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Maine 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrat in the race, either opposed abortion outright or have changed their positions on the issue over time.

LePage has been steadfastly opposed to “taxpayer-funded abortion,” Brent Littlefield, a spokesman for his re-election campaign, said Thursday.

Michaud has changed his position on the issue — or “evolved” on it, according to his supporters. On Wednesday, his campaign spokeswoman, Lizzy Reinholt, said Michaud would support public funding of abortion services for Medicaid-eligible women.

It’s the latest shift to a pro-choice footing for Michaud, who was first elected to Congress as a pro-life candidate in 2002. In 2009, Michaud was among a group of Democrats in the U.S. House to join Republicans to support an amendment to the landmark Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — that prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion. 

Reinholt said he voted for the amendment, known as the Stupak-Pitts amendment, only to ensure the ACA wouldn’t be defeated by House Republicans. The vote on the amendment wasn’t close; it passed in the House 240-194.

Michaud this year has been endorsed by several high-profile pro-choice organizations, including the political arm of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.  

Reinholt noted that while Cutler and LePage can be critical about Michaud’s changing or evolving views on abortion over a long legislative career, neither of the other two candidates has cast a vote on abortion.

“Mike discussed this issue at length with both Planned Parenthood and NARAL during their endorsement interviews, and he was proud to receive their support because they know they can trust him to stand up for a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions,” Reinholt said. “Mike is the only candidate in this race who has ever voted to protect women’s reproductive rights. That includes low-income women who depend on public funding for their care.”

Reinholt said the real issue for Michaud isn’t just about supporting abortion rights. It’s about improving access to family planning to help reduce unintended pregnancies.

“Mike would restore the critical funding to family planning services that Gov. LePage cut last year and pass the Women’s Health Initiative he vetoed,” Reinholt said.

Michaud was unavailable to discuss the issue with the Sun Journal on Thursday because he was attending a bill-signing ceremony at the White House with President Barack Obama.

Cutler said he has maintained the same position on publicly funded abortions for Medicaid recipients for years and first made it public in this campaign in October 2013. He said Michaud’s support of Stupak-Pitts indicates that Michaud only supports abortion for those who can afford it.

Cutler pointed to Michaud’s votes on the issue in Maine and Washington. “He’s never said he supports MaineCare funding,” Cutler said. “There’s a real difference here between us on this issue.”

LePage’s campaign said the governor has been consistently opposed to allowing “taxpayer-funded abortions.”  

LePage has said he’s opposed to abortion except in the case of rape or incest, or in cases in which the procedure is necessary to save the life of the mother.

Littlefield, a campaign consultant and spokesman for LePage’s campaign, said Michaud’s voting record is as unclear as his public statements on the issue.

Littlefield said Thursday Michaud is changing his position on issues that help him with more liberal voters in more urban and populous southern Maine, but where he truly stands on abortion is still difficult to decipher.

“We know clearly where Paul LePage is on this issue,” Littlefield said. “He doesn’t support taxpayer-funded abortion. But Mike Michaud, he’s like the weather vanes that you see on old barns all across Maine. You never know which way it’s going to point unless you can guess where the wind is blowing.”

But Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said Michaud’s evolution on abortion hasn’t been as dramatic as his opponents like to point out.

“Mike Michaud has never been as purely pro-life as Paul LePage,” Melcher wrote in an email to the Sun Journal. “You don’t see him at Hands Around The Capitol, or calling for a human life amendment.”

Melcher said it’s true Michaud was more “pro-life” than most Democrats in Maine, but voters who are picking a candidate on the issue of abortion were probably already going to vote for LePage.

“Michaud isn’t making a 180-degree turn here, more like a 90-degree turn,” Melcher said.

He said a danger for Michaud in his shifting stance on the issue over the years “… opens him up to charges that he’s an opportunistic flip-flopper.”

Michaud, once considered a fiscally conservative “blue dog Democrat” could also find himself fending off charges that he’s become a true “tax-and-spend” liberal for supporting expanding services under the taxpayer-funded Medicaid program, Melcher said.

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