Libby Mitchell has been running a quiet campaign so far. ”Run silent, run deep” seemed to have been the campaign’s motto. The Maine Democratic Party has launched most of the salvos so far, not Mitchell’s campaign. It appears there were a few strategies against Mitchell’s opponents waiting in the wings. Unfortunately for Mitchell, one of those opponents caught wind of alleged plans from her campaign: Eliot Cutler.
The Cutler campaign has accused the Mitchell camp of conducting some sneaky polling tactics. According to Cutler campaign manager Ted O’Meara, several weeks ago Mitchell’s campaign or a group working for them called a supporter. Allegedly, as soon as the caller found out they were speaking with a Cutler supporter they presented negative information about both Cutler and Paul LePage. They were then asked by the alleged pollster if they still supported Eliot Cutler.
The negative information used by the pollster stated Cutler was affiliated to a mortgage company that went bankrupt. According to the pollster, Cutler also took $22,000 in director’s fees after the company had gone bankrupt. Cutler has admitted he did work for Thornburg Mortgage, Inc. (TMI) from December 2003 until October 2009 as an independent director. The economic collapse hit TMI hard. “TMI was forced to file for bankruptcy protection in April 2009,” said a letter from the Cutler campaign, “having been brought to its knees by the liquidity and credit crisis that was caused by excessive risk-taking by money center commercial banks and investment banking houses.” The fee mentioned was approved by the Creditors Committee and Court after bankruptcy proceedings had completed. The fee covered services rendered during the third quarter of 2009. No money was provided for the partial fourth quarter. In the letter, the campaign states Cutler lost many hundreds of thousands of dollars personally.
O’Meara stated the the campaign became aware that Mitchell or a “partisan group working on her behalf” would hit them soon on the events surrounding TMI. “No doubt the Mitchell campaign and/or her surrogates will attempt to portray TMI as just another predatory lender that took advantage of borrowers who couldn’t afford their mortgages and that it helped to cause the financial meltdown from which we are still recovering,” said O’Meara. He was right.
Both Mitchell’s campaign and the Maine Democratic Party have denied any involvement in the polling. “Well, I’m not gonna comment on strategy beyond saying that if Eliot Cutler is accusing us of conducting a push poll then he’s either mistaken or has his facts wrong,” said David Loughran, a spokesman for the Mitchell campaign to MPBN. Arden Manning, coordinated campaign manager for the Maine Democratic Party, rejected the notion that the party had anything to do with such polling and asked Cutler to produce evidence to prove his allegations.
As O’Meara predicted, the Dems took an opportunity to take a swipe at Cutler and TMI. Loughran said Cutler’s time at TMI was a relevant part of his business experience. Manning hit Cutler for accepting a salary after TMI “went under and people lost their jobs”. As previously noted, Cutler has offered an explanation for that. Manning also commented on the TMI issue on his Facebook page.
Eliot Cutler sat on the board of what was the 2nd largest residential mortgage company in the US. When that company went bankrupt and became the 9th largest bankruptcy since 1980, Cutler continued to take a salary while the mortgage lender’s staff were fired. Now Cutler is trying to play the victim?
On the surface this may seem like just another back and forth between two candidates. The average voter probably does not care about push polling. Campaign tactics are not generally kitchen table issues. If Cutler made tactical issues the focus of his campaign he would have little hope of winning. Cutler will have to appeal to moderates at a policy level. Letting Mitchell and LePage duke it out, then using those opportunities to occasionally say that he is above partisanship will help Cutler prove to voters he is different.
This is a somewhat similar strategy that led James Longley and Angus King to victory. Unlike Longley and King, Cutler has more overt ties to his former party, ie. Jimmy Carter and Ed Muskie. Lobbing an occasional bomb may help Cutler push himself further away from Mitchell and the left. These jabs mold a narrative in voters’ minds. Cutler is saying to voters that he and Mitchell are not cut from the same ideological cloth and there are distinct differences between the two. This is very subtle magic Cutler and his team are weaving. They are crafting a narrative that hits at the subconscious, rather than a public ideological slug-fest. If Cutler were to focus on LePage in this way, rather than Mitchell, this would push him to the left. It would look like Cutler and Mitchell ganging up on LePage, a perception that Cutler certainly wants to avoid.
Elections are mostly about image, identity. Controlling how voters view you, and how they view your opponents’, is integral to winning a campaign. This has been said many times before on this site, but it bares repeating. Cutler does not have a party machine behind him. He must define himself clearly in the minds of voters. Cutler must prove to voters he is an alternative, a reasonable choice firmly in the center of Maine politics. Continuing to craft the political narrative in this manner may quietly shift the story voters have created of this campaign. If kept a small part of his strategy, this may lead Cutler to victory in November.