The Mike Michaud calculus

Just how serious is U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, about running for governor?

It’s an open question that only he really knows the answer to. A number of times in the past, he has openly (but always gently) flirted with the idea of running for higher office, and each time he has taken a pass.

Most recently, he took a flier on running for the open U.S. Senate seat in 2012, vacated by Sen. Olympia Snowe’s retirement. Ultimately he decided to take a pass on the race when it became clear that Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, was interested and he might have to face a primary against a liberal firebrand.

Of course, Pingree herself backed off when it became clear that independent Angus King was serious about running. A successive chain of smaller fish being consumed by larger fish, it seemed.

But this time it appears that if Michaud wants the Democratic nomination, he can probably have it. Former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci has made it clear that he is thinking strongly about running for his old job again, but if Michaud declared his intention to run, that would likely put an end to any such talk from Baldacci.

The Democratic Party needs to actually put up a fight and try to make this a competitive election, or it will face the third consecutive statewide race where it finishes a distant third to a Republican and an independent.

So the Democrats need a strong candidate to run, which will (probably) be either Michaud or Baldacci. Look for one or the other to run, not both.

If it is Michaud, he will be in for a bit of a surprise. Running in Maine’s second congressional district is one thing. Running statewide is another.

The Republicans will have absolutely no intention of losing Maine. This will be a mid-term election where the electorate will naturally be more conservative and interested in scoring some revenge after Democrats won the 2012 elections nationwide.

LePage is also much stronger than most people give him credit for. Given his unmoving rock-solid base of support, he has probably, at a minimum, 35 percent of voters who will come out for him without even thinking twice about it.

In a three-way race, the solidness of a candidate’s support, particularly when it’s above the one-third threshold, is vitally important and allows him the opportunity to close out the race by simply getting another 5 or 6 percent of the vote.

Also, LePage is very strong with voters that Michaud would ordinarily use as his political base, particularly working-class areas of central and northern Maine and members of Maine’s French-Canadian community. This already limits Michaud’s growth.

Cutler, too, is no slouch. The Democrats will engage in a scorched earth campaign to attempt to destroy him so that he does not gain any traction as the “anti-Lepage” alternative for liberals and moderates.

This will be a pretty hard sell, given that Michaud has made his career out of (rather comically and inaccurately) claiming to be a conservative Democrat. The southern and coastal liberals in the state won’t be particularly thrilled with Michaud, and you can expect Cutler to run as a social liberal to capture them.

But most importantly, both the Republicans and Cutler will have an opportunity to really examine Michaud’s record in public in a way that has never really been done before.

They will hammer him for being “Mr. Irrelevant” in Congress, near the absolute bottom of legislative influence. They will point out that in more than a decade he hasn’t spearheaded any major legislation, or played dealmaker on any big bipartisan bills. He has quietly warmed a seat on the back benches, regardless of which party was in control, fading into relative obscurity.

In late January, Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling conducted a survey that showed LePage was leading both Michaud and Cutler by 4 and 8 points, respectively.  This is before the race even begins in earnest.

Michaud would find it very difficult to grow his support beyond the 30 percent he had in this poll, and, quite frankly, Cutler’s best hope for winning the Blaine House probably depends on Michaud’s presence in the race and his eventual implosion.

So is Michaud serious about running? He probably wants to, but, like so often in his career, he will realize that the hot lights are uncomfortable and will instead retreat to the safety and comfort of a congressional seat that he probably could own for life.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.