Controlling the PR when a candidate comes out

This morning, Mainers woke up to the news that the likely Democratic candidate for governor Mike Michaud – a six-term congressman from the state’s northern, more conservative district – is gay. Commentators, columnists and pundits will ponder this for weeks trying to decide how it will affect the dynamics of the 2014 race for the Blaine House.

Rep. Mike Michaud
US Rep. Mike Michaud

Here’s my view: it won’t. Not really. There were three candidates running for governor before the announcement, and only two of them had a realistic chance of winning. Michaud’s sudden announcement doesn’t change that. If anything, it will make Michaud a stronger candidate and make the long-shot independent candidacy of Eliot Cutler an even longer shot.

But this being a blog about public relations (mostly), let’s take a look at how the Michaud campaign handled his confession.

First of all, is this announcement really a surprise? Although he’s been exceedingly discreet about his personal life, the rumors that Michaud is gay have been around for years. Those kinds of rumors dog almost any 58-year-old who’s never married. But there were other hints, too. A number of Michaud’s staff members and close associates are openly gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Although many people in and out of political circles were aware of the rumors, to the people who liked and supported Mike, it didn’t matter. And if any of those people were caught off guard by Monday’s news, I suspect it still won’t matter. If you liked Mike before Monday, you’ll still like and support him today. As Mike Tipping noted in his blog, anyone who makes a decision on who to support based on his or her sexual orientation was probably never going to support Mike in the first place. 

From the day he announced he was giving up his safe seat in Congress to run for governor, political insiders began pondering how his campaign would handle the “gay question.” There were some insiders, even some who are close to Michaud, who insisted that the question would never be asked. His opponents would be stupid to raise it, and the generally tepid Maine press wouldn’t ask it either. Or so they thought. Maybe in John Kennedy’s day, but in an age of social media and anonymous websites, it was certainly going to be injected into the race, one way or another. 

Then the issue became how to answer the question when it comes up. There were some who suggested that Mike should simply say, “None of your business,” or words to that effect. “How come you don’t ask Paul LePage if he’s gay,” would be another answer.

But these were dodges, clever ways to avoid answering the simple “are you gay” question. And let’s face it: any heterosexual candidate who’s asked that question would most likely respond with a vigorous ‘No.” If you dodge it, well, you’re gay.


In the end, then, Michaud had no real choice but to come out of the closet. And he did it in a carefully controlled announcement that ensured that his message, the way he wanted it said, was the primary focus, not some interpretation by reporters or commentators.

Michaud made the announcement in an op-ed submitted simultaneously over the weekend to two of the state’s major newspapers for publication Monday morning. (Why he didn't offer the op-ed to the state's third major daily, the Sun Journal, based in the heavily French-Catholic city of Lewiston is unclear.) The op-ed came with unusual restrictions. There would be no interviews with Michaud regarding the announcement until Monday. Reporters were even prohibited from seeking reactions from political pundits until after 12:01 a.m. Monday, meaning that the initial story in the printed newspaper would have only Michaud’s words, no one else’s. In fact, it appears that the newspapers had to agree to these restrictions even before they knew the subject of the column (although I’m sure they had a pretty good idea of what was coming).

Why did the newspapers agree to this ploy? Because it’s a big story, and if they didn’t agree they would potentially miss having it in the paper Monday morning. This is typical. The news media always claim they have strict rules about how they report the news and how no one else can dictate the terms. Most newspapers usually reject op-eds that are submitted to other newspapers. But these rules are all situational. They go out the window when a big, juicy story is at stake.

For Michaud, the restrictions allowed him to make the announcement with no filter, just his words on his terms. It’s also probably no coincidence that the announcement came the day before Gov. Paul LePage’s re-election kick-off announcement in Augusta. The fallout from Michaud’s announcement will likely continue into Tuesday, overwhelming the news of the governor’s party, but that’s not really a big deal.

What is a big deal is how this affects the overall race. Prior to the announcement, Michaud was narrowly leading in most polls, with Cutler a distant third. I don’t see that changing. Michaud is well known and well liked in the 2nd Congressional District, and as I’ve said, those who like him will stick with him. The more important question is the more liberal, progressive voters in southern Maine, many of who viewed the more conservative Michaud with some suspicion and could potentially drift to Cutler, the spoiler in the race.

But they’re suspicious no more. Michaud’s announcement probably helps secure those southern Maine progressives, who were his weakest voting bloc. They’re now less likely to throw in with Cutler, who had no real path to victory before this news and now has an even more difficult one. Independents only win when the campaigns of one of the major party candidates collapses, and I just don’t see that happening with either LePage or Michaud. Barring that, Cutler will either be an asterisk in the 2014 race or a spoiler who helps re-elect LePage. He won’t be governor.

And the announcement certainly won’t hurt Michaud in the fund-raising department either. He’s getting national attention, and national accolades, for coming out. If he wins, he’ll be the first openly gay candidate to be elected governor in the US. It’s probably not the banner he intended to carry, but one that for now he proudly wears.

His challenge will be to move beyond this issue, make it a one or two day story, and get to the issues that Maine people really care about, like jobs, health care and the economy. It’ll be easier now that the whisper campaign and potential negative attacks about his sexual orientation have been removed. Don't expect to see Michaud become the “gay candidate” in the race, waving the rainbow flag at campaign rallies. He’ll still be Mike, the working class mill worker from Millinocket who’s in the very unique position of making the “gay issue” a subtext of his campaign instead of the highlight.

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Tags: Maine politics, public affairs, News media