Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage made a surprising public comment Friday that he is considering running for Congress instead of re-election. A little more than a week ago, Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME-2) announced the formation of a gubernatorial exploratory committee for purposes of challenging the incumbent, thus creating the possibility of an open 2nd District. ME-2 contains about three-quarters of the state’s land mass and includes the cities of Bangor, Lewiston, Auburn, Caribou, and Presque Isle.
The Maine gubernatorial race is an interesting one because it will again be constructed as a major three-way race. In 2010, LePage, then the mayor of Waterville, rode to victory in a similar configuration. Taking advantage of Independent Eliot Cutler’s strong candidacy, the Republican was elected with just 37.6 percent of the vote, but that standing was strong enough for a first place finish. Cutler was a close second with 35.9 percent and the Democratic nominee, then-state Sen. Libby Mitchell, fell way back to 18.9 percent. Cutler has already announced his intention to run in 2014, guaranteeing another three-way race.
But, will the congressional seat be open? Two years ago, when Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) announced her retirement, Rep. Michaud immediately jumped into the statewide race. When former two-term Independent Gov. Angus King then became a candidate, Michaud quickly retreated to his House district fearing that he could not win the developing three-way campaign.
The 2014 Governor’s race looks more winnable for either Cutler or a Democrat because LePage’s approval numbers are low. The last statewide poll that gauged his job approval came from Public Policy Polling back in January when he registered only a 39:55 percent favorable to unfavorable ratio. Still, even with a low rating, LePage continued to top a three-way field. According to PPP, the Governor led Michaud and Cutler 34-30-26 percent, respectively. A Pan-American Group survey conducted in early April put LePage in even better position in the three-way configuration that will likely emerge next year. This poll projected the Governor to a 33-26-23 percent advantage, with Cutler in second place and Michaud dropping to third.
It would be a curious move for LePage to hop into an open House seat just when his ideal re-election scenario appears to be occurring. Cutler shows no signs of backing off, and the Democrats are not coalescing around him the way they did for King in 2012, thus making the latter their de facto party nominee.
The prospective move to a congressional race is even more surprising when considering that LePage won’t likely draw a strong Independent, thus placing him one-on-one with a Democratic nominee. Though the 2nd District is less liberal than the 1st, and has elected a Republican in the past (Olympia Snowe prior to her election to the Senate in 1994), a Democrat normally would be favored in an open seat situation.
President Obama carried the 2nd District 53-44 percent in 2012. After retreating to the House race from his short-lived senatorial foray, Michaud was re-elected to a sixth term with an almost identical 53-44 percent margin, despite outspending his opponent by more than 2:1.
From a Republican Party perspective, however, a LePage move to the House would conceivably place the party in its strongest position. Still in a three-way contest for governor, the new party nominee might actually find him or herself in stronger position than LePage because the incumbent’s record would not be a factor. In the House race, the governor would certainly be the party’s strongest available candidate and could certainly put the GOP in likely it’s best position to capture a Democratic seat.
The game of political musical chairs in this small, northeastern state is far from over. Gov. LePage’s interest in jumping into a congressional race in his political future certainly casts a new light over the state’s electoral situation. Much more will be forthcoming as other individuals from all parties begin to consider their corresponding moves. Expect new polling data to be published shortly as the political players begin to see what could unfold.