With 10 days to go before the election for Maine’s next governor, the race is going down to the wire with no clear leader in a field of four that includes a Democrat, a Republican and two independents.
And it’s a race that has been largely marked by decorum and lack of controversy – a significant difference from the past two election cycles when the more bombastic Gov. Paul LePage ran for office.
“It’s a sedate race,” said University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt. “It’s possible that they’re operating under a sense that Maine voters are suffering from a bit of bombast fatigue, with LePage and President Trump, and aren’t ready for another side show. This campaign feels a little more typical for Maine than a LePage campaign.”
The most recent and only widely disseminated poll was released Oct. 22 by Pan Atlantic Research of Portland and the Bangor Daily News. It gave Democrat Janet Mills a nearly 10-point lead over Republican Shawn Moody, with independent Terry Hayes at 7.9 percent and independent Alan Caron at 2.3 percent. However, the sample was taken in early October, with a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
National political prognosticators do not give Mills a clear path to the Blaine House. Both fivethirtyeight.com and Real Clear Politics predict a voting electorate leaning Democrat. But the Cook Political Report and Governing magazine both say the race is a tossup.
“I don’t put a lot of credence in polls,” said Mills, who spoke to the York Rotary Club on Friday morning. The Pan Atlantic poll information is now nearly a month old, she said, and doesn’t have a lot of relevance to this moment. “I can tell you I’m working my tail off. The stakes are just too high for me not to give this my every waking moment.”
But Schmidt said the Pan Atlantic poll should have “sent a shiver down the spine” of the Mills campaign – because again, an independent could play a significant factor in a gubernatorial race. In 2008 and 2012, Gov. LePage was elected with less than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race involving a Democrat and an independent.
“I think Democrat-leaning independents who feel comfortable voting for a third party candidate might say, ‘Oh, Mills is going to win. I can cast my ballot for the independent,’” Schmidt said.
Hayes’ campaign claims she is seeping votes from Moody, as Republicans question whether he can win. Campaign manager Kyle Bailey said there is no path to victory for the Republican, adding “GOP party insiders in Augusta must be looking at the same internal polling numbers as our campaign. Support for Terry is ticking up while Moody’s numbers are trending downward.”
But UMaine political science professor Mark Brewer said he’s not buying the logic. He agrees with Schmidt that independents have traditionally siphoned votes from the Democrat. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that Terry benefits Shawn Moody. I don’t think it gives him the edge, but it’s a positive for him.”
Schmidt agrees. “People who are Republican generally vote a straight ticket. Even centrist Republicans under LePage still voted for LePage.”
Ted O’Meara ran the campaign for independent Eliot Cutler in 2008 and 2012. He said he’s steered clear of involvement in this election, but said Hayes is no doubt hearing what Cutler heard – people who are calling her a spoiler.
“We were under so much pressure both times to get out,” he said. “It’s difficult to listen to people say you’re going to be a spoiler. The good thing about this campaign season for me is the absence of this obsession with polling. It’s given the candidates a chance to talk about who they are. It’s a really positive thing. In the past two cycles, there was an obsession in trying to predict the race.”
Candidate campaign ads mirror the campaigns themselves – “Chill,” said Brewer. Part of the reason, he believes, is the personalities of the candidates themselves. While Moody, for instance, may continue some of LePage’s policies, “my understanding is that he’s genuinely a nice guy. So he’ll continue the policies without acting like LePage.”
Further, said Brewer, “regardless of how far we think we’ve come, there is a gender component. Some voters act differently if it’s an aggressive female. Look at the criticism directed at Hillary Clinton. I suspect Mills’ campaign knows that and has taken it into consideration.”
While the campaigns have been sedate, there's been a plethora of negative ads in particular against Moody and Mills – paid for by outside political action committees. According to campaign finance reports, groups such as Act Blue Maine, A Better Maine, Maine Conservation Action Fund, Maine Conservative Voters Action Fund have joined Democratic and Republican parties and campaigns to raise millions of dollars for advocacy.
“That’s the most discouraging part of what is happening to our system,” O’Meara said. “It used to be candidates running against candidates. Now there are these multi-headed monsters that spend more than all the candidates combined.”
“Candidates like to keep their hands clean,” Brewer said. “It’s (standard operating procedure) these days to have the attack ads coming from outside groups.”
“You have to expect that somebody is going to be running negative ads, and there’s always a risk that voters will find you distasteful,” Schmidt said. “If you have a solid base, you can do that. But given this race, these candidates may be more cautious.”