By Kevin Miller
Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine said Friday that she will not run for governor in 2014, narrowing the field of big-name Democrats who are considering challenging Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Pingree's decision clears the way for U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud or former Gov. John Baldacci to enter what is expected to be another hard-fought race involving at least three leading candidates: LePage, independent Eliot Cutler and the Democratic nominee.
"I have given it a lot of thought and I am very happy serving in the House," Pingree said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald. "I have a lot of opportunities to do good things for Maine people so my decision is to stay right here."
Michaud and Baldacci could not be reached for comment Friday.
But Michaud's chief of staff in his Washington office, Peter Chandler, said Michaud has not decided whether to seek the Democratic nomination.
Maine Democrats have been eager to win back the Blaine House since LePage -- a conservative Republican in a relatively moderate state -- won the 2010 election with 39 percent of the vote.
Michaud, Baldacci and Pingree have openly considered gubernatorial bids but have agreed that only one would enter the race, to avoid a high-profile and costly primary.
Steve Woods of Yarmouth is the only Democrat to register as a candidate so far.
While Pingree easily won a third term representing Maine's 1st District in November, her left-leaning political views were seen by some as a potential liability in a statewide race.
Michaud won 55 percent of the vote in the more conservative 2nd District in November, against a well-known Republican challenger, Senate President Kevin Raye.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, a wealthy hedge fund manager who is majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald.
Pingree said Friday that she and Michaud "talk about the race quite frequently" and she felt honored by the encouragement she got.
Her appointment to the powerful House Appropriations Committee presented "an unexpected opportunity," she said, and she wants to work on many federal issues that are important to Maine.
She acknowledged that the prospect of a tight, three-way race was also a factor in her decision not to run.
"It is a tough combination with a three-way race, so that is something everyone has to consider," Pingree said.
"I know there are a lot of good people thinking about running and there is a lot of frustration with the current governor, so I have no doubt it will be a lively race."
Her announcement immediately turned attention back to Michaud -- a six-term incumbent -- since Baldacci has made it clear that he will run only if neither member of Congress does.
Michaud has said that his recent appointment as the top-ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee is a key factor for him. An influential voice on veterans issues, Michaud would be in line for the committee's chair if he were re-elected and Democrats regained control of the House.
"I think Mike has really proven himself to be a strong candidate, particularly in this last election cycle," said Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic campaign operative and a political columnist for the Portland Press Herald. "He is very well known to people in his district and has done some extraordinary constituent service, especially in the area of veterans. And I think he would have statewide appeal."
Maine's 2014 gubernatorial race is expected to attract major attention -- and money -- from national political groups.
Several polls released this year indicate that LePage would have trouble in a one-on-one race against a Democrat but could win again with a plurality of votes in a three-way race against Cutler and a Democrat.
Cutler finished 2 percentage points behind LePage in 2010 after many Democrats divided their votes between him and the party's nominee, Libby Mitchell.
LePage's political adviser, Brent Littlefield, suggested that Pingree didn't like the odds.
"Chellie knows what most political observers know, which is that Governor Paul LePage is going to be re-elected," Littlefield said.
"She saw the writing on the wall that the race is going to be very difficult ... and I think she made the choice for what she perceives to be a safe seat (in Congress) rather than face a tough campaign."
A spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association said this week that Maine's race is in the top tier in terms of interest nationally, and that his organization will "aggressively support" the Democratic nominee.
"We are going to aggressively communicate a message that Gov. LePage has proved himself too extreme for the state of Maine and that the only thing Eliot Cutler could accomplish is the re-election of Paul LePage," said Danny Kanner, spokesman for the governors association.
First elected to the U.S. House in 2008, Pingree is Maine's most liberal member of Congress.
She became only the fifth Mainer ever to hold a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, a panel that helps control the federal purse strings.
Before her election to Congress, Pingree served in the Maine Senate -- including four years as Senate majority leader -- and was president of the political activist group Common Cause. She is co-owner of a bed and breakfast, Nebo Lodge, on the island of North Haven.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDCTweet
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