AUGUSTA — Eliot Cutler, the independent who finished a close second in Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial race, may take his first step this week toward a second run for governor.
Cutler told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday that there would be no announcement or news conference, but “I’m going to do something this week.” He provided no additional details.
Cutler was responding to rumors that he planned to make an announcement about his candidacy. The Cape Elizabeth resident declined to comment further, but his remarks suggest he may start forming his campaign committee, a preliminary requirement for gubernatorial candidates.
A poll released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling, a national firm, indicates that Republican Gov. Paul LePage is among the least popular governors but would likely win a three-way race involving Cutler and any of several Democrats.
The poll’s release and the rumblings about Cutler’s announcement touched off early salvos from potential opponents.
Brent Littlefield, who is involved with LePage’s re-election committee, said Cutler has been campaigning ever since he lost to LePage in 2010. Democrats, meanwhile, said the poll showed that Cutler would be a spoiler.
Cutler has long been regarded as a likely candidate in 2014. Even if he announces the formation of a campaign committee, it doesn’t guarantee that he will run. However, it would enable Cutler to begin raising money.
Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine-Farmington, said Tuesday that it may seem early for Cutler to initiate his campaign. He said Cutler may be trying to capitalize on a news cycle that has been dominated by state and national politics.
“I think everyone has assumed that Cutler was going to run again,” Melcher said. “It makes sense that he would get in a little earlier than normal when the energy and interest in politics is high.”
Melcher said that although forming a campaign committee wouldn’t lock Cutler into running again, doing it early may have some strategic value.
LePage’s re-election committee was formed in August 2011. It has held several fundraisers since then and has become more active over the past couple of months.
LePage, who won a five-way race in 2010, has not announced that he will run for a second term.
Cutler lost to LePage by 1.8 percentage points. He blamed early voting and other factors for the defeat.
Cutler, an attorney, was born and raised in Bangor. He has not held elective office, but was assistant director of national resources and energy for President Jimmy Carter.
Before that, he was a legislative assistant for Democratic U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie and was involved with the drafting of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
He later led a national environmental law firm that eventually merged with the international firm Akin Gump, one of the most prolific Washington lobbying organizations.
After his loss to LePage, Cutler vowed to remain politically active. He established OneMaine, an offshoot of his former campaign apparatus that is designed to support independent candidates and claims not to be a “stalking horse” for Cutler himself.
Cutler has remained in the public spotlight, making weekly appearances on radio shows.
He was also a board member for Americans Elect, a national nonprofit group formed to gain ballot access in every state for the purpose of introducing a bipartisan presidential ticket. The presidential push fizzled, but Americans Elect resurfaced during last year’s U.S. Senate race when it spent more than $1.3 million to help elect independent Angus King.
Americans Elect’s involvement drew complaints from Republican operatives, who claimed that the group illegally coordinated with King’s campaign. The complaint centered on Cutler, who was the chairman of King’s state campaign.
Cutler later produced a letter showing that he had resigned from Americans Elect before it got involved in the Senate race, but that letter has not pacified skeptics.
Rumors about Cutler’s formation of a campaign committee follow increasing speculation that former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci is weighing another run.
Baldacci reiterated last week that he is considering a bid in 2014. He did so after offering pointed criticism of LePage’s governing style during an event in Bangor.
When asked at an event in Portland about Baldacci running again, LePage responded, “Christmas comes early sometimes.”
Melcher, at UMaine-Farmington, said Tuesday that there may be a strategic reason for Cutler to get involved in the race early. He said his announcement could influence decisions by Democratic candidates, removing some from the field.
“It’s like they say, the best opponent is the one that doesn’t run,” Melcher said.
Other than Baldacci, no well-known Democrat has expressed interest in running for governor. Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, told the Press Herald in December that the party would welcome the candidacy of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud or U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.
Ed Gilman, Michaud’s spokesman, said the congressman is focused on his work in Washington.
“Anything with respect to the gubernatorial race, he’ll consider in due time,” Gilman said.
Willy Ritch, a spokesman for Pingree, said Tuesday that she had “heard from people who have urged her to run, and she will certainly consider it.”
However, he said, the 2014 “election is still a long ways off and right now she’s focused on her job in Congress.”
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority owner of the Portland Press Herald.
Steve Woods, a Yarmouth town councilor who ran for the U.S. Senate last year as an independent, announced in November that he was rejoining the Democratic Party for a potential run for governor.
Woods is considered an outsider in the Democratic Party, but has tried to elevate his profile since November.
Grant told the Press Herald in December that the party will have “a serious, well-financed campaign” no matter who runs for governor in 2014.
“We’re not backing down from any challenge, whether it comes from Paul LePage or Eliot Cutler,” Grant said.
Implied in that declaration is that Democrats settled for third in last year’s U.S. Senate race because they feared a repeat of the 2010 governor’s race.
Cutler’s late surge siphoned votes from Democrat Libby Mitchell, who finished third. Republicans tried to replicate that outcome in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, when outside GOP groups ran ads attempting to bolster Democrat Cynthia Dill, who finished third.
“The lesson of 2010 is very much fresh in the minds of the Democrats,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “If Cutler announces his campaign committee or his candidacy, it puts pressure on the Democrats. A lot of them may be thinking, ‘I can beat Paul LePage. But can I beat Paul LePage in a race with Eliot Cutler?’”
Grant has said Democrats will do polling to help determine who is their best candidate.
On Tuesday, Public Policy Polling, a national firm, released a poll that indicated LePage is one of the most unpopular governors, with 39 percent of respondents approving of his performance and 55 percent disapproving.
Littlefield disputed those numbers. Even if taken at face value, he said, the numbers showed that the governor has built strong levels of support despite difficult budget challenges.
Public Policy Polling also polled potential gubernatorial races. In each one, LePage came out on top. Cutler finished second in all but two scenarios.
One shows LePage with 34 percent, Michaud with 30 percent and Cutler with 26 percent.
Another shows LePage with 37 percent, Pingree with 31 percent and Cutler with 23 percent.
A third shows LePage with 36 percent, Cutler with 29 percent and Baldacci with 27 percent.
Grant said the results show that Cutler would be only a spoiler.
“If I were Eliot Cutler right now, I would be thinking twice about running for governor,” Grant said. “This poll makes it clear that with a strong Democrat in the race, he can’t win.”
Public Policy Polling surveyed 1,268 Maine voters and 510 usual Democratic primary voters from Friday through Sunday. The margin of error for the entire poll is 2.8 percentage points, and 4.4 points for the Democratic portion. The firm does its polling through automated telephone interviews.
It said the Maine poll was not commissioned by any political party or organization. Critics of the firm, including Littlefield, have said its results skew toward Democrats, a claim linked to the firm’s Democrat-heavy client list.
State House Bureau Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: