It’s shaping up as more agony than ecstasy. The 2014 election most likely will be ugly and divisive when we desperately need hope and unity. The only people who may be happy about this are the political pundits and columnists who will have lots to talk and write about.
The gubernatorial campaign looks like it’ll be a heavyweight bout with three guys slugging it out in the public arena.
Incumbent Gov. Paul LePage gets his wish of two major opponents, Congressman Mike Michaud and Independent Eliot Cutler. They represent his only chance of winning re-election, given the likelihood that he can’t garner more than 38 to 40 percent of the vote.
One scenario, however, would ratchet this up to a whole new level of excitement and interest: a serious challenge to LePage in the Republican primary. Since Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz stepped up to express his “embarrassment” about the governor’s statements and performance, there’s been a lot of speculation that Katz might challenge LePage in the primary.
Katz would be a superb candidate, for sure. He’s smart, accomplished, capable, reasonable and able to work with all interests — just like his father. Bennett Katz was one of Maine’s most outstanding political leaders with many terms in the Senate.
And here’s a little-known story about the elder Katz. He decided one year to run for governor and hired me to be his campaign manager. I got the campaign off to a fast start, ordered bumper stickers and organized our first press conference where Bennett would announce his candidacy.
When he stepped up to the podium that morning, however, he astonished me and everyone else by announcing that he had decided not to run. I was more than disappointed; he would have been a superb governor.
Whether Roger Katz completes his father’s mission or not, there’s an opportunity here for a capable, accomplished Republican, campaigning on a theme that we’re going in the right direction but LePage lacks the leadership skills and temperament to get us there. Such a statewide drive would enroll independent and Democratic voters, as well as Republicans who would join the party in order to remove LePage from the race.
LePage, in this scenario, ironically becomes the best enrollment tool the Republican Party has ever had.
Let’s look at the numbers. Contested Republican gubernatorial primaries generally draw between 70,000 and 90,000 voters. The hotly contested 2010 primary brought out 131,407 Republicans — a historically massive turnout. LePage won a surprising victory in that primary with 49,126 votes (37.6 percent).
Let’s say 100,000 Republicans plan to vote in the primary in 2014 and the governor gets 75 percent of them. That leaves his opponent with 25,000 registered Republicans. I’ll bet you dinner at your favorite restaurant that Le-Page’s challenger could easily recruit 50,000 new Republicans from the ranks of independents and Democrats who would do anything to get rid of LePage.
Now take this one step further. This very capable Republican challenger, having made a good impression in the primary and with all the good will generated by his or her ousting of LePage, would have a very real chance of winning the general election over Michaud and Cutler.
That’s not a given, of course, because both Michaud and Cutler are substantial candidates, either of whom could, in the right set of circumstances, beat LePage. In fact, they probably would prefer that scenario than the new one I offer here today.
Republican legislators, however, would go with my scenario in a heartbeat rather than carrying the very real burden of LePage into their legislative campaigns, where the governor’s 38 percent of the vote gets them nowhere near victory. If the 2014 election is a referendum on the governor, a whole lot of my Republican legislative friends are going to be out of luck.
Democrats are well-positioned to win a significant legislative victory in this scenario. Remember, they tried out this theme in 2010, tying five incumbent Republican senators to LePage and hammering that theme home to voters in those five districts. All five Republican incumbents lost.
That strategy is certain to be applied by Democrats all over the state this time, and the stubborn support of Republican legislators for Le-Page’s vetoes of 57 bills gives Democrats all the ammunition they’ll need. Many of those Republican legislators voted for the bills, then reversed their positions and voted to uphold the governor’s vetoes of those bills.
“I was for the bills until I was against them after Gov. LePage vetoed them,” is not a very effective slogan or defense.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or george [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmith maine.com.