The only question I get asked more than, “Did you hear what LePage did today?” is “Will U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, run for governor?” Indeed, among Democrats and the political glitterati of Maine, this is the question we debate most.
The conversation is usually threefold: 1. Will he run? 2. Can he win? 3. If he doesn’t, are Democrats screwed?
The answer to the third is self-evident. While maybe not totally screwed, Michaud is certainly the Democrats best shot. If he doesn’t run, our next best shot will be former Gov. John Baldacci. But unlike Michaud, Baldacci has favorability ratings that must be improved, and he needs a clear vision why a second Baldacci administration will be about moving forward and not backward. Not because his first administration was bad (far from it) but because it is a period in Maine’s history that was tough, and people remember it that way.
So, will Michaud run, and can he win? The answer to the second is inextricably linked to the first. Obviously, he won’t run if he doesn’t think he can win. In fact, I don’t think he will run unless he thinks he has a very good shot at winning. And by “a very good shot,” I actually mean excellent. Because nothing I have heard indicates that he hates D.C. or is dissatisfied with the job. Although I’ve heard some frustration with the partisanship and political games, I expect that is probably more related to the Democrats being the minority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Every minority member is frustrated, while every majority member thinks things are going great. Michaud is also now the Democratic lead on a very powerful committee, the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which means he is next in line to be the chairman if and when the Democrats win back the House (maybe 2016 when Hillary Clinton is elected president!).
Despite all of this, I believe that being governor is a responsibility Michaud would love. And he would probably be very good at it. While I’ve never served with the congressman, his negotiating skills and leadership as Senate president are legendary. He was always able to cut a deal and remain true to his values. Those are two very important traits we need in a governor.
So, Michaud likes his job in D.C., but he would also love to be governor. That means it all comes down to his odds of winning. To date, I have seen four solid polls, both internal and public. In three of the four, Michaud is within 3-5 points of Gov. Paul LePage in the expected three-way race. This is a strong position for any challenger, especially when that challenger has never run statewide. Plus, when and if he declares, I expect he will pick up a few additional points and will probably take an early lead.
But what are the chances Michaud can win from there? I would say just less than 50-50. Despite the belief of many that LePage is there for the ousting, Blaine House incumbents are very hard to beat, even when they have LePage’s notorious reputation. In fact, an incumbent governor in Maine has not lost a re-election campaign since Ken Curtis beat John Reed in 1954.
In 1990, Joe Brennan, then a member of Congress like Michaud is today, decided to leave Congress and challenge an unpopular sitting governor who presided over a weak economy. In that race, Brennan lost to Jock McKernan in a close three-way race with Andrew Adam as the unenrolled. More recently, in 2006, Baldacci entered his re-election with similar favorability to LePage, and he easily won in a three way. And Republicans were just as motivated to get rid of him as Democrats are to get rid of LePage today. These races have to be weighing on Michaud’s mind.
Plus, even with all of LePage’s vulnerabilities, the economy is starting to improve, and this is still the most important issue for the electorate. Add to this that polling has consistently indicated that while people may not like LePage’s personality, they do seem to like his policies. And policy will usually win over personality (which means Democrats have to start winning the policy debate, but that’s a different column I’ll save for another time).
Let me be clear: It is not impossible for Michaud to win. Far from it. In fact, being just under 50-50 against a sitting governor is very strong. Michaud is well liked, has a solid base in the second district, will garner tremendous support from national groups and donors (I hear they are ready to raise and invest $3-5 million), and the party faithful are ready to move heaven and earth for him the minute he even hints he is running. He has evolved on Democratic base issues around gay rights and choice. (Although many Democrats and independents are still waiting for him to co-sponsor the universal background check bill.) There is no doubt Michaud will be formidable, and he just might pull this thing off. In fact, I spoke to one well-respected Republican pollster, and he flat out thinks this is Michaud’s race to lose.
But here’s the one thing that still gives me pause. Everyone I speak to that is close to him says the same thing: “There is a 90 percent chance he will enter the race.” Sounds like pretty good odds, right? Well, as someone who has made the decision to run or not run, I can tell you that 90-10 usually means something is nagging at you. And when you are at 90-10 for months, that means the 10 percent is tougher to overcome than you realize. It also means your heart may not be totally in the game, or your fear of losing is weighing heavily on your mind. If either of these is true, the race becomes much harder to enter because Michaud’s strongest opponent will be his own insecurities about the race.
If I were Peter Chandler (his long-time chief of staff and closest political advisor), I would say, “Run if you are 100 percent sure you want it, and we’ll put together a team that will give you the best shot to win. But if you have any doubt, if you won’t be able to live with yourself if we come up one point short on Nov. 4, 2014, or if putting yourself through this race feels harder than the possibility of winning, then let’s stay in Congress and keep fighting for Maine people here.”
My Democratic heart hopes that he runs and hopes that he has the will to do it because he will be a formidable candidate and a great governor. I also want him to run because I think his impact as governor would be much deeper than any impact he could have in the U.S. House. But I am a risk taker, and the risk of running has always been one worth taking, for me.
So, do I think he will run? Unfortunately, I don’t. But I hope Michaud proves me wrong.