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What If A Congressman Comes Out And Nobody Cares?

Rep. Mike Michaud talks to an Associated Press reporter Monday in Portland, Maine, about his public announcement that he is gay.
Clarke Canfield
Rep. Mike Michaud talks to an Associated Press reporter Monday in Portland, Maine, about his public announcement that he is gay.

The final chapter in the history of bombshells of the closeted gay politician variety may have been written Monday by Rep. Mike Michaud, a Maine Democrat running for governor.

Michaud, 58, announced in a column published in two state newspapers and by The Associated Press that he is a gay man, and followed it with the question: "But why should it matter?"

Judging from immediate reaction in Maine, where Michaud next year will be competing to become the first governor in U.S. history elected as an openly gay man, the answer seemed to be that it probably won't.

"I don't think this will be a defining issue," says MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of the Portland, Maine-based Critical Insights market research and polling firm. "And I don't think most people are surprised by his announcement."

Wrote the Bangor Daily News in an editorial headline: "Mike Michaud is gay. Welcome this truth and move on."

Those on the ground in Maine are predicting that the expected three-way race in 2014 between Michaud, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and progressive independent Eliot Cutler remains competitive — and largely unchanged — after Monday's not-so-big reveal.

More Help Than Hurt?

One effect, however, could come in the money race. Michaud, the seventh openly gay or bisexual member (all Democrats) currently serving in the House, now becomes a symbol for LGBT supporters nationwide, says Mike Tipping of the Maine People's Resource Center, a nonprofit that conducts regular polling and public opinion research.

The congressman's announcement, he says, will likely increase his ability to raise money nationally, and potentially help him siphon some support from Cutler.

"This is more likely to help him electorally than hurt him," Tipping says. "LePage has locked up conservative support, but there's more fluidity among moderate and progressive voters, going between Michaud and Cutler."

"If anything, this will help him among that voting bloc," he says.

Michaud's announcement comes a day before LePage, 65, a Tea Party favorite with high statewide negative ratings, has plans to announce that he'll seek a second term. Cutler, 67, a wealthy environmental lawyer who finished second to LePage in a three-way race in 2010, announced in September that he would run again.

Poll averages show Michaud, a Franco-American Catholic who has held elective office since 1980, leading in both a three-way matchup and in a two-candidate race with LePage.

State Of Play

Maine voters last year legalized same-sex marriage, by a vote of 53-47 percent, three years after they had rejected a similar effort. Michaud and Cutler supported the legalization effort; LePage has said that he personally opposes gay marriage but that it should be up to voters to decide.

Though there remains significant polarization over gay marriage, the antipathy does not appear to extend to candidates' sexual orientation, says FitzGerald, of the Portland market research firm.

"Mainers have shown tolerance on this and intolerance toward those trying to make that type of thing an issue," she says. "This candidate has a long track record in public service that people can judge him on."

Writing in the Portland Press Herald, political reporter Steve Mistler noted that "rumors about Michaud's sexual orientation have followed the former mill worker throughout his 33-year political career, but have never been reported."

Michaud served two terms in the state House, and five in the state Senate. He came to Washington in 2003 after what would prove to be his only close race for Congress — a 52 to 48 percent victory over Republican Kevin Raye.

He has since easily won re-election in the more rural and conservative of the state's two congressional districts.

"He worked in a mill, drove a forklift, he doesn't have a college degree, and has among the least personal wealth of anyone in Congress," says Tipping. "There are some other identity politics in this race."

In his coming-out column, Michaud suggested that his hand was forced by opponents' "whisper campaigns, insinuations, and push-polls."

The notion that he was somehow outed, however, strikes FitzGerald as a bit funny.

"This is Maine, where nobody is whispering," she says. "This is just one large small town."

A town in which Michaud's announcement, whatever prompted it, came as little surprise and, a year from now, may have a marginal effect on what's expected to be a hotly contested election.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.