Pro-Cutler PAC gets $50k boost from fellow Harvard alum and big GOP donor

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. BDN file photo by Troy R. Bennett.

After receiving only $4,500 in donations from mid-July through the end of September, Campaign for Maine — a political action committee working to elect independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler — has received a $50,000 cash injection from a Kansas couple with a long history of financing Republican candidates.

Democrats said it’s just the latest sign that Republicans are propping up Cutler’s candidacy, but Cutler’s campaign said the explanation is a lot more simple.

“Eliot has been friends with this person since they were 18,” said Cutler spokeswoman Crystal Canney. “They went to school together, they were in business together. This is a personal friend of almost 50 years.”

The donors, James and Marilyn Hebenstreit, have together given at least $484,000 to GOP candidates for federal office, according to the Federal Election Commission. Those have included House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and groups such as the National Republican Congressional Committee, The Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.

The Hebenstreits have also maxed out their donations to Cutler’s campaign, having given a combined $6,000 to the independent’s bid in a three-way race that also features incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

According to the FEC, the entirety of the Hebenstreits’ largesse for decades has gone to Republican candidates. The couple has never before donated to an independent or Democratic Party candidate for federal office.

Canney said it makes sense the Hebenstreits would give so big to Cutler, given the long relationship the candidate has with the couple. The campaign’s story checks out, too: A Forbes profile of James Hebenstreit shows that he was at Harvard, earning his MBA, at the same time as Cutler.

“This is the flaw in the Democrats,” she said. “They don’t think people can work across the aisle. Eliot has friends who are Republicans, Democrats and independents.”

Democrats have argued for the entire campaign that Republicans would prop up Cutler’s candidacy in an effort to keep LePage afloat. Previously, they have cried foul at GOP-funded mailers that painted Cutler in a positive light, and have groaned at the seemingly friendly relationship between Cutler and LePage at the five recent gubernatorial debates.

They’ve also pointed to comments by top Republicans and their allies that a strong Cutler campaign was essential for clearing a path for the unpopular LePage to win with a slim margin, as he did in 2010.

On Friday, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said “the fact that Republicans are actively boosting Eliot Cutler to re-elect Paul LePage is the worst kept secret in Maine politics.”

Michaud and the Democrats have attempted to paint the gubernatorial contest as a two-way race between LePage and Michaud, with Cutler an afterthought. Overall polling trends validate that position, showing a tight race between the two major-party candidates with Cutler trailing in the mid-teens.

In recent days, Cutler’s campaign has attempted to portray the independent’s campaign as resurgent, thanks in part to strong performances in the debates — including one hosted by MPBN for which he was the only candidate to attend.

On Friday, while Democrats were grousing about the Hebenstreits’ donations, Cutler called on Michaud to “release his supporters” if he begins to trail LePage.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Hebenstreits are from Kansas, not Missouri.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.