Down East 2013 ©
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the 2010 election in Maine, it’s that nice guys may not finish last, but they certainly don’t finish first.
Of course, it could be argued that there weren’t all that many nice guys – or gals – involved in the just-concluded campaigns. But there were candidates who pretended to be, and for the most part, they lost.
A prime example: Independent Eliot Cutler attributed his late surge in the polls, leading to what appears to be a close second-place finish behind Republican Paul LePage in the governor’s race, to his refusal to engage in negative advertising, avoiding any TV spots that attacked his opponents. But results in the 1st Congressional District race indicate that perhaps Cutler should have been less squeamish about going on the attack.
Three weeks before the election, incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree was in trouble. Her own polls showed upstart Republican challenger Dean Scontras closing the gap rapidly, as she continued to flounder with questions about her rich boyfriend, hedge-fund manager S. Donald Sussman, and her free rides on his corporate jet.
According to her advisors, Pingree had one chance to salvage her race. She had to go negative.
She did, and it worked. Her campaign – and a bunch of allegedly independent outside groups – poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into anti-Scontras ads that portrayed him as a right-wing ideologue and a threat to Social Security. Scontras, who had little money of his own and had made much of refusing help from Republican political action committees, had no way to respond.
Within days, tracking polls showed his negatives rising, particularly among moderate suburban voters, who had supported Pingree two years ago but seemed to be wavering in this election. Scontras was hoping support from the Tea Party movement would offset some of the negative-ad barrage, but that amorphous group proved to have little impact on the race.
In contrast to Pingree, Cutler’s approach – to play the victim whenever his opponents attacked him – went down well with his core supporters, but failed to move enough disaffected liberals from the camp of Democratic nominee Libby Mitchell to match LePage’s committed cadre of backers. Particularly in the state’s rural areas, voters bought the image of Cutler promoted in the negative ads as a rich guy from away with shady ties to China.
There’s no proof that if Cutler had gone negative it would have changed the outcome of the governor’s race. Doing so would have run the risk of turning off some of the people who voted for him. He might have finished second anyway.
But those negative ads clearly worked for Pingree in the 1st District. And Maine Republicans can point to at least two dozen legislative races where they went on the attack and won previously Democratic seats.
Cutler may have emerged from the fray with some measure of his self-respect. Pingree, on the other hand, came out with a victory.
The conventional wisdom is negative advertising doesn’t work in Maine. Tell that to LePage, the new GOP legislative majority, and a very relieved congresswoman.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com .