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Cutler Supporters in Maine's Conservative Somerset County Rethink Their Votes

A.J. Higgins

Republican Gov. Paul LePage won a narrow victory four years ago thanks to triumphs in a few rural, largely conservative counties. One is Somerset County, where LePage defeated independent Eliot Cutler by just over 3,000 votes.The governor needs to hold onto - or increase - this advantage to win re-election. To unseat LePage, Democrat Mike Michaud must chip away at LePage's support in these strongholds by winning over more of the voters who were planning to back Eliot Cutler. Jay Field traveled to Somerset County to talk with voters about the state of the governor's race.


The conversation begins over lunch.

Jay Field: "What do you recommend here?"

Louise Dow: "It's all good."

Louise Dow orders the Monte Cristo sandwich. I have the grilled ham and cheese. We're sitting side by side, at a table at Vittles Restaurant in Pittsfield. I ask Dow what concerns her, as she prepares to vote on Tuesday.

"We're losing jobs," she says. "We're losing businesses in this area. And we can't afford to. We didn't have that many to start with."

Back in March, UTC, which makes fire safety equipment, announced it would shut down its plant in Pittsfield next year, eliminating nearly 300 jobs. Dow has been a Republican all her life. But four years ago, she voted for Eliot Cutler.

"And I think he's a good candidate. I think he's a smart man," she says. "But I don't think he can win and I don't want to waste my vote."

This time, Dow will vote for Democrat Mike Michaud. How the Cutler vote breaks, especially in places like Somerset County, will go a long way toward determining who wins the governor's race. Throughout the campaign, the conventional wisdom, statewide, has been that many Cutler voters fall into the anyone-but-LePage category, and will fall in line behind Michaud, if it looks like the independent has no chance of winning.

But recent polls show a neck-and-neck race between LePage and Michaud, with Cutler fading. Louise Dow says she expects the governor to do very well in Somerset County on Election Day. "I think this is a big Republican stronghold," she says.

How big of one becomes quickly apparent along Route 2 in Palmyra, where campaign signs adorn the lawns of homes and businesses.

Jay Field: "Here's another house with, let's see, Gov. LePage and Bruce Poliquin. So we're heading west on Route 2 and this was a company that someone suggested I stop into - ADA Fence. So pop in here and see if anyone wants to talk politics."

"I think LePage is going to win," says Republican Donald Hill. "Everybody that's supporting Cutler wasn't a Democrat. There had to be Republicans also." Hill, who runs ADA Fence, says he strongly supports LePage's policies, but has issues with his behavior as governor. "I don't like his crudeness, for one thing. You can't insult people that way. He's a laughing stock sometimes."

Nonetheless, Hill says he will enthusiastically vote for LePage for governor for a second time on Tuesday. So will Chris Perkins, co-owner of Whittemore Real Estate in Skowhegan. In conservative, rural Somerset County, Perkins says the governor's sometimes combative interpersonal style is an asset that's likely to win him just as many votes this time around.

"People can say what they want about the governor. But they really appreciate that he is very plain spoken about things," Perkins says."And does he speak out of turn occasionally and make misstatements? He absolutely does. But a lot of his supporters out there think he's truly speaking from the heart and in the best interests of them."

Democrat Mike Michaud has won election to Congress six times in the 2nd District. In his re-election campaign two years ago, Michaud beat Kevin Raye, a moderate Republican, by nearly 5,000 votes in Somerset County. But in the governor's race, Michaud has struggled to attract the sort of support in Maine's rural counties that helped him return to Washington again and again.

"Have an absentee ballot right here and I'm going to the post office and I've already voted. I'm dropping it off. Right now? Yes. today," says Sherry Vigue, who lives in Skowhegan. Vigue says she planned to vote for Cutler until his press conference on Wednesday, where he encouraged his supporters to back other candidates if they didn't think he could win.

"As I followed everything and seen LePage go up, and it be so close between LePage and Michaud, I said, 'I think I've got to vote for Michaud,' " she says.

To win on Tuesday, Michaud will need high turnout in heavily Democratic counties in southern Maine. He'll also need to steal some votes from Gov. LePage in some of the state's more rural counties to the north. And to do that, Michaud will need as many Cutler supporters as possible to reach the same conclusion that Sherry Vigue came to.