The Maine Republican Party released a secret recording Tuesday of a Democratic state senator saying U.S Rep. Mike Michaud, the party’s nominee for governor, is “not a brain guy” and that the state official prefers independent candidate Eliot Cutler because he is “brighter.”

Sen. Geoff Gratwick made the comments while going door-to-door in his campaign to win re-election in District 32, which includes Bangor and Hermon.

“(Michaud’s) good. He’s strong – high average, but he’s not a brain guy,” Gratwick said in the recording. “If it were Michaud and Cutler, I probably would have voted for Cutler, because I think he’s more measured, brighter.”

The Maine Democratic Party and Michaud campaign responded by calling the release a “desperate” attempt to distract from Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s “failed leadership.”

Maine Republican Party spokesman David Sorensen said in a news release that the audio recording was made legally because the person to whom Gratwick was speaking made the recording.

Maine is a single-party consent state, which means that a surreptitious recording is legal as long as one of the parties directly involved is aware that it’s being made.

The audio is posted on YouTube and displays Gratwick’s words in black and white text on the screen. The edited comments are played repeatedly over the course of a minute. The identity of the person who made the recording was not made public. Sorenson said he didn’t know when the recording was made.

“Democratic leaders are trying their hardest to make Congressman Michaud the best candidate for the left, but Senator Gratwick’s comments expose the dissension in the ranks,” Sorensen said. “This is the same kind of attitude the left had toward Libby Mitchell in 2010.”

Gratwick did not respond to an interview request, but in a written statement distributed by Democrats, he emphasized his support for Michaud and claims his comments were taken out of context.

Gratwick, a physician, is a first-term senator who is being challenged by Republican Cary Weston, a former Bangor mayor.

“I am 200 percent in support of Mike Michaud for governor,” Gratwick said. “His election is crucial for the people of Maine. My remarks were taken out of context and I apologize profoundly to everyone working for change in Maine for my remarks that have led to a misunderstanding.”

Sorensen declined a request from the Portland Press Herald for an unedited version of the recording.

“I wish I could release the entire clip but we promised the voter who recorded it we wouldn’t, as there are identifying parts of it,” Sorensen said in an email to the newspaper. “He’s concerned about his family’s privacy and wary of retribution. I can say that there’s nothing else very sensational in the recording.”

Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said Michaud would not be available to comment Tuesday. She called the withholding of the full audio “suspicious.” In a written statement, she said, “If the Maine Republican Party’s desperation wasn’t evident before, it is now. The Republicans are willing to do anything to distract from Gov. LePage’s failed leadership.”

The person who recorded the conversation cannot be heard on the audio, so it’s not clear whether Gratwick was prompted to comment on Michaud’s intelligence or on the hypothetical contest between Michaud and Cutler.

However, the recording could still be damaging to Michaud, who has been working to keep the party united to prevent a repeat of the 2010 gubernatorial election, when Cutler surged late in the campaign at the expense of Democrat Libby Mitchell. She finished a distant third, but it wasn’t enough to win the governorship for Cutler, who lost to LePage by less than 2 percentage points.

LePage opponents, particularly the Democratic Party, fear a repeat this year. Michaud and Cutler are believed to be battling for the same voters, while LePage’s support has held steady at just under 40 percent.

A poll conducted in June for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram by the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center showed Michaud a few percentage points ahead of LePage, within the poll’s margin of error. Cutler was trailing a distant third.

LePage himself has acknowledged that his best chance of retaining the Blaine House is for Cutler to rise in the polls at Michaud’s expense.

The audio release comes a day after Republicans held a press conference criticizing Michaud’s campaign for portraying a headline written by his congressional press office as an objective, independent news story.

Cutler spokeswoman Crystal Canney said in a written statement that the campaign doesn’t condone the use of secret recordings and that the parties are just trying to score political points.

“But this just confirms what we hear every day from Democratic and Republican legislators, former legislators and party activists who privately tell us Eliot is the best candidate and that they plan to vote for him,” Canney said. “This whole flap, just like yesterday’s finger-pointing about ads, reminds voters why the parties are more interested in scoring political points than doing what’s best for Maine.”

LePage campaign spokesman Alex Willette echoed Sorensen’s claim that there’s turmoil within the Democratic ranks, but added that it’s “unfortunate” that public officials are recorded at every turn. “The governor has had that pretty much since the day he took office – a camera in his face or the tracker even showing up at his home filming into the Blaine House windows,” he said.

The Republican strategy appears to be to create a “negative buzz” about Michaud, while also propping up Cutler, according to Ronald Schmidt Jr., associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine.

However, Schmidt said in an interview that the “skeevy” maneuver is a “gamble” that could backfire on Republicans, who could come across as desperate by “listening at the doorknobs.”

“It appears to be an attempt to create a larger narrative in the public’s mind, but there’s another narrative there of the sneaky political operative maneuver,” Schmidt said.

The Maine Democratic Party said in a press release late Tuesday morning that Republicans were getting desperate after a former LePage appointee, retired Brig. Gen. Don McCormack, a Republican, endorsed Michaud for governor.

Party Chairman Ben Grant said in a written statement that the recording would only serve to unite the party.

“Gov. LePage and the Republicans have nothing positive to run on so they are resorting to negative, divisive, dirty politics in an effort to distract from the failed leadership of their own candidate,” Grant said. “Maine voters won’t be fooled. These petty attacks only unite us around Mike and his positive vision for Maine.”

Gratwick could not be immediately reached for comment.

Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said she would be issuing a statement about the recording. She noted that the audio is edited and called on Republicans to release the full version so the comments can be put into context.

“I think there are a lot of ways it can be edited,” Reinholt said.

Sorensen declined to provide the full audio at the request of the Portland Press Herald.

“I wish I could release the entire clip but we promised the voter who recorded it we wouldn’t, as there are identifying parts of it,” Sorensen said in an email to the newspaper. “He’s concerned about his family’s privacy and wary of retribution. I can say that there’s nothing else very sensational in the recording.”

Reinholt called the withholding of the full audio “suspicious.”

The person who recorded the conversation cannot be heard on the audio, so it’s not clear whether Gratwick was prompted to comment on Michaud’s intelligence or on the hypothetical contest between Michaud and Cutler.

However, the recording could still be damaging to Michaud, who has been working to keep the party united to prevent a repeat of the 2010 gubernatorial election, when Cutler surged late in the campaign at the expense of Democrat Libby Mitchell. She finished a distant third, but it wasn’t enough to win the governorship for Cutler, who lost to LePage by less than 2 percentage points.

LePage opponents, particularly the Democratic Party, fear a repeat this year. Michaud and Cutler are believed to be battling for the same voters, while LePage’s support has held steady at just under 40 percent.

A poll conducted in June for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram by the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center showed Michaud a few percentage points ahead of LePage, within the poll’s margin of error. Cutler was trailing a distant third.

LePage himself has acknowledged that his best chance of retaining the Blaine House is for Cutler to rise in the polls at Michaud’s expense.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings

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