PORTLAND — For the past decade, Rep. Mike Michaud has represented the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River — a conservative region where a candidate’s rural roots and career in the paper mills help score points among many voters.

But as Michaud, of the 2nd District, weighs whether to attempt to trade the U.S. House for the Blaine House, the self-declared Blue Dog Democrat will have to win over voters in Maine’s decidedly left-leaning southern 1st District.

It’s a path that many other statewide candidates from rural Maine have tread before Michaud, who this week created an exploratory committee to gauge support for a gubernatorial run.

Michaud’s road to the governor’s mansion would be complicated, however, by the fact that he will be competing for some of those same votes with Eliot Cutler, a Cape Elizabeth resident waging his second independent gubernatorial campaign.

So could Michaud have trouble with southern Maine liberals and progressives?

Like most political observers in Maine, Brian Duff, of the University of New England, said it is far too early to predict who would win a three-way race between Michaud, Cutler and Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

But Duff doesn’t believe Michaud will have problems among hard-core southern Maine Democrats.

“The only problem Mike Michaud would have in the 1st District would be from people attacking him from the left. And unless he gets in some sort of a competitive primary, there is just no situation where that is going to happen,” Duff said. “I think the Democratic Party is going to rally around him because this is sort of a do-or-die race for the Democrats in the state of Maine.”

Like many young men of his generation from the Millinocket area, Michaud graduated from high school and followed his father into the Great Northern Paper mill.

He spent nearly 30 years in the mill and remains a card-carrying union member and labor supporter. In return, labor unions have funneled roughly $1.6 million into his congressional campaigns — a fact likely to be raised by LePage on the campaign trail.

Michaud served in the Legislature from 1980 to 2002, including serving as chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee as well as Senate President at a time when the chamber was comprised of 17 Democrats, 17 Republicans and one independent.

Michaud said it was his exposure to one of the mill’s less-popular products — water pollution — that steered him into politics. But as he does in a election-style video posted on his as-yet-unofficial campaign website, www.Michaud2014.com, Michaud often weaves together his blue collar roots and political deal-making ability as he appeals to Maine voters.

“I first ran for the Maine Legislature because I saw how that mill and others like it were polluting the Penobscot River,” Michaud said in the video. “I won that first campaign and we did clean up the river. And I continued to work shifts at the paper mill for the next 22 years while serving the people who elected me to fight for what was right.”

In the Maine State House and now the U.S. House, he has earned a reputation as a more moderate or conservative Democrat. He has voted on both sides of the abortion issue and has a stellar rating from the National Rifle Association. But he is staunchly pro-union, supports President Barack Obama’s health care law and is a vocal critic of global free trade agreements.

He has also developed a reputation as an influential voice on veterans issues, currently serving as the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Kenneth Palmer, professor emeritus at the University of Maine, said the 2nd District better represents the politics of the state as a whole, which is why he said there are so many examples of successful statewide candidates. In the 1994 Senate race, for instance, Republican U.S. Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-2nd District, beat her House mate Tom Andrews, D-1st District, despite Andrew’s popularity in his district.

But Palmer said the dynamics of a race between Michaud, LePage and Cutler are hard to parse.

“It’s going to be a very, very difficult race to predict, certainly this far out,” Palmer said. “What you could see is Mike Michaud cutting into Governor LePage’s strength in the 2nd District.”

LePage’s political advisor, Brent Littlefield, offered a glimpse of the Republican’s likely strategy against Michaud on Thursday.

“In his three decades as a politician, Michael Michaud has supported tax increases, job killing regulations and helped grow the deficit and debt in Washington to the point where it now reaches nearly 17 trillion dollars,” Littlefield said.

Cutler, meanwhile, attacked both LePage and the party politics that he said are financed and controlled by special interests.

Of course, every political candidate and each race is unique. But recent history shows that candidates who originally hail from Maine’s rural 2nd District have no problems winning statewide races.

Five of the last eight governors and six of the last eight senators were originally from the areas that are now part of the 2nd District. The number of governors rises to six if you include LePage, whose original hometown of Lewiston was part of the 2nd District until recently, as was, Waterville, the city he was mayor of when he ran for governor. Part of that is undoubtedly geography since the 2nd spans a much larger area, although federal law requires the two districts to have roughly equal populations.

But does the north-south divide still matter when it comes to statewide races?

“Perhaps not as much as it used to, but to some degree,” Palmer said.

Michaud said Thursday that he has heard from Mainers of all political stripes — Democrats, Republicans and independents — from all over the state who are urging him to run.

“A really diverse, cross-section of Mainers, so I felt it was time to take the next step to get into more depth about what people want the next governor to do,” Michaud said in an interview.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, is also vouching for her colleague after opting not to run for governor herself.

“Mike has served the people of Maine well in Congress and has been a tireless fighter for veterans, working families and small businesses,” Pingree said in a statement. “I value his friendship and I know he will continue to serve Maine people well whatever he chooses to do — either in Congress or Augusta.”

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
[email protected]
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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