Political analysts from across the state say that while Mike Michaud's sexual orientation may have triggered headlines and talk programs, the six-term Democratic 2nd District congressman is unlikely to lose votes from his bid to become the country's first openly-gay governor. In fact, some election watchers say Michaud's announcement could actually attract more support from Maine's more progressive 1st Congressional District.
Mike Michaud isn't as well known in southern Maine, having emerged from a northern Maine paper mill and on to Washington, representing Maine's 2nd District. But in that large home territory, where he has built a political career spanning four decades, Michaud's announcement is probably not triggering major reactions.
"I don't think it was a surprise to anybody that he was gay," says MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of the Portland-based Critical Insights polling group.
MaryEllen FitzGerald says the results of a statewide poll completed at the end of September showed Michaud attracting about 33 percent support among those surveyed, with Republican Gov. Paul LePage coming in with 30 percent and independent candidate Eliot Cutler posting 24 percent.
Southern Maine is the battlefield between Michaud and Cutler, a former Bangor Democrat who now makes his home in Cape Elizabeth. And FitzGerald says Michaud's announcement could bring new support, even from outside the state of Maine.
"I think he may garner much more national attention and support," she says. "He would be the first openly-gay governor in an election, to be elected, in the country. So I think he may get a lot of national fundraising support for having taken this position, and maybe that's part of the rationale about why he made that announcement at this point in time."
What remains to be seen is whether special interest groups opposed to gay rights might try and capitalize on Michaud's sexual orientation by making independent expenditures to benefit one of his opponents. At the University of Maine, political science professor Mark Brewer says any opposing candidate would have to publicly condemn those kind of attacks that could be launched against Michaud - but they might do it with a wink and a nod.
"Just because what you say publicly, or how you're forced to respond publicly, that doesn't necessarily imply what you're doing behind the scenes," Brewer says.
Independent Eliot Cutler attracted significant Democratic support during his 2010 independent bid for governor, and would like to expand his base next year. Emily Shaw, a political science professor at Thomas College, says Michaud's announcement is likely to have a galvanizing effect on liberal Democrats who could have been leaning toward Cutler.
Patrick Murphy, of the Pan-Atlantic SMS group in Portland, says Shaw could be right, but doubts that those votes could determine the outcome of the election - even in a close three-way race.
"I assume people would see Eliot Cutler has being pretty socially liberal," Murphy says. "There are probably certain votes out there that might have gone to him that would now go to Michaud, but I don't think it's going to be a defining factor."
It's unclear how the same-sex marriage vote of 2013 might reflect public sentiment in the governor's race. Southern Maine's 1st Congressional District approved the question, while northern Maine's 2nd District did not. Are the same voters who oppose gay marriage apt to vote for a gay governor?
At the University of Maine Farmington, Political Science Professor Jim Melcher suggests that conventional wisdom would say "no," but he also thinks Michaud is well-liked, and has made the announcement early enough to begin the work needed to change some of those mindsets. But Melcher says there are those who weren't going to vote for Michaud anyway,
"I think a lot of those people would already be voting for Paul LePage, because a lot of them are conservative Christians who have a moral problem with homosexuality generally," Melcher says. "But I think you may also have a lot of people who like Mike Michaud personally. Movement in Maine has certainly been in a direction toward more acceptance of these things."
Publicly, Carroll Conley, the executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, which has led opposing campaigns against gay issues in the past, says he does not believe his organization will be taking a position against Michaud's sexual orientation. But Conley also says that the league will continue to emphasize the traditional biblical perspective toward public policy.