The recent revelation that Democrats attempted to recruit Eliot Cutler as their 2014 gubernatorial candidate should come as no surprise, even after they ran one of the nastiest campaigns in Maine political history against him. After all, after attacking him constantly in 2010 the Democrats’ tactic in 2014 has been to suggest that he ought to run as a Democrat or drop out. They’ve been saying this consistently; it’s been a constant drumbeat almost since the day he entered the race.
The alleged conversation between Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant (who denies it ever took place) and Eliot Cutler — wherein Grant, according to Cutler, said he could “clear the field” for him if he ran — also fits known events rather well. After all, there was no large, multi-candidate field for Mike Michaud to wade through, like there was for Libby Mitchell in 2010. Democrats even managed to convince his one potential opponent, Steve Woods, to switch from the gubernatorial race to a state Senate seat contest. Whether Michaud ultimately would have won a primary or not, Democrats wanted to avoid the risk.
Having cleared the field for Michaud, Democrats set their sights on Cutler, trying to bully him out of the race. The suggestion that Cutler is really just a Democrat who should be a good party loyalist and drop out so they can beat LePage is ridiculous, of course. He has never run for office as a Democrat, or held any top political positions in the party. Despite his experience working for Ed Muskie, he is no Barbara Merrill, who served in the Legislature as a Democrat before running for governor as an independent in 2006.
Indeed, Cutler’s true independence is why the Democrats view him as a real threat in a way that they never did with Merrill. With Merrill, we never saw concerted negative attacks on her, just as the Republicans did not with Shawn Moody. This difference in approach shows that the Democrats’ obsession with Cutler is more tactical than principled.
That independence was on display again this week, as he earned the support of outgoing Republican state Sen. Patrick Flood of Winthrop. (Disclosure: Pat is my senator and a friend.) Like the other legislators supporting Cutler, he is not running for reelection, so he can’t be raked over the coals for buckling his own party. With Flood, the shock isn’t that he didn’t support LePage; their disagreements are well known. Rather, it’s that he chose to insert himself in the gubernatorial race at all, earning at the very least ire from his many friends and former colleagues, if nothing else.
Oddly enough, Cutler earning a few scattered Republican endorsements here and there is not necessarily a sign of trouble for LePage, just as Moody’s candidacy wasn’t. If LePage were in true trouble with his own party, he would have faced a real challenge in the primary (after all, Republicans have shown no shyness regarding primaries of late). What it does show — along with his positions on any number of issues — is that Cutler is a true independent, rather than a shadow Democrat. As limited as his Republican support is, it would be pretty much nonexistent if he were running as a Democrat.
The surprise about the Democrats recruiting Cutler to run on their ticket isn’t that it occurred: it’s that it became public, and that when it did, they reacted to it immediately and strongly. Indeed, those loud and vigorous denials give Cutler’s claim greater credence rather than the reverse. After all, if it weren’t true, why not laugh it off as a desperate ploy to gain attention?
The Democrats would have been well served to find another candidate for 2014, given the struggles of the milquetoast Michaud. Instead, they settled on their establishment choice, a choice that may doom them in the end. Even if Cutler’s claim isn’t true, by November the Democrats may wish it were.