In Maine Political Debates, Which Candidates Will Be No-Shows?

Jul 30, 2014

Candidates for governor and Congress are picking and choosing their options for public debates, in what some political analysts are describing as a disturbing trend for voters. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has declined to participate in a number of debates — including an invitation to a statewide televised debate from MPBN in late October. And Democratic challenger Mike Michaud says that if LePage isn’t showing up, neither will he. Meanwhile, 2nd District GOP candidate Bruce Poliquin says he will not participate in any debate that includes independent challenger Blaine Richardson.

The message emailed to MPBN from Lauren LePage — the governor's daughter and campaign scheduler — was brief but to the point in response to the station's invitation to its planned gubernatorial debate. It reads “We have received numerous requests, and unfortunately we will not be able to accommodate every request. At this time, Governor LePage cannot commit to participating in your debate." LePage's response to MPBN and other potential debate hosts didn't come as a huge surprise, given that he had declined a similar invitation four years ago. But then MPBN also heard from Democratic challenger Mike Michaud's campaign.

"Gov. LePage is who we're running against in this race," says Lizzy Rineholt, Michaud's communications director. "He's the incumbent governor and this is who we're campaigning against. It really makes no sense for us to debate unless he's on stage with us."

The LePage-declines-and-Michaud-follows-suit sequence is repeating itself throughout the state whenever the governor decides that he is not served well by a debate invitation.

"I think both the Democrats and the Republicans are being very disrespectful to the people of Maine," says Crystal Canney, communications director for independent candidate Eliot Cutler. She says voters can draw a lot of conclusions about the other two candidates based on where and when they choose to appear together in a public forum.

"If you want to be governor, you should be able to have a debate with whoever is there," Canney says. "And what I get from this is that neither one of them feels like they're competent enough to be in a debate."

LePage has also declined debate invitations from the Lewiston Sun Journal and a partnered proposal from the Bangor Daily News and the Greater Bangor Area Chamber of Commerce. But his rejection of the MPBN invitation may represent what University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer says is a tactical decision that could actually be in the governor's best interests. Brewer says LePage likely reasons that the MPBN audience leans to the progressive side, and that he would change few minds among the station's audience. And that's not the only benefit that Brewer says the LePage campaign gets by turning MPBN down.

"It allows them to send a message to their supporters and say 'look, we recognize that this particular media outlet is biased, we know that they work against what you believe in, what we believe in, so therefore we are just going to refuse to participate with them,'" Brewer says, "'we're not going to play their game,' and I think that allows them to send a message that really resonates with some people."

And Brewer says while Democrat Mike Michaud must accept some responsibility for the scuttling of some debates, his reasoning may be sound from a purely strategic standpoint.

"If I were advising Michaud, the last thing I would want to do is to recommend that he go to participate in a debate where the other major party candidate is not there and then that lends further legitimacy to Eliot Cutler," Brewer says.

On the 2nd Congressional District debates, campaign officials for Republican nominee Bruce Poliquin have said that he would not participate in any debate that included independent Blaine Richardson because they did not consider him to be "a legitimate candidate." Brewer says that could be a real misstep for Poliquin, who is a new face in the 2nd District and lacks the level of name recognition enjoyed by Michaud or LePage.

"That's not necessarily true for Emily Cain and Bruce Poliquin, so I think for me in terms of civic education of the electorate, I think that's the big negative that comes out of this,” Brewer says.

MPBN News management, meanwhile, says it will continue to urge all candidates to take part in the four televised debates that are planned for the fall, and in a series of one-hour live radio call-in programs.