By Dave Sherwood
BOWDOINHAM, Maine (Reuters) - Mike Michaud, a six-term U.S. congressman from Maine and a Democratic candidate for governor in the state's elections next year, publicly stated on Monday that he is gay, saying he was responding to "whisper campaigns" intended to undermine his candidacy.
Michaud, who will face off against Republican Governor Paul LePage and Independent candidate Eliot Cutler next year, said he did not believe his sexual orientation should be an issue for voters.
"Allow me to save them the trouble with a simple, honest answer: 'Yes, I am. But why should it matter?'" Michaud wrote in an essay published in Monday's Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News.
Michaud, who worked in a paper mill worker for 29 years before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, is from a rural, conservative congressional district of north-central Maine. He has long side-stepped questions about his sexual orientation.
If elected, Michaud could become the country's first openly gay governor voted into office. His admission could add another wild card into a race featuring the fiery and combative LePage, who in a July television interview quipped that a rival lawmaker "claims to be for the people, but he's the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline."
Republican political consultant and commentator Dan Demeritt, a former LePage spokesman, said Michaud's declaration was politically "savvy." He said Michaud's rural Maine upbringing and long-held local support make it hard to predict the political implications of his announcement.
"Personally, I congratulate him. And politically, I think it's brilliant," Demeritt said. "It's a move that will garner him national attention, and national resources, for being an openly gay candidate."
In Maryland, Heather Mizeur, who is openly gay, made national headlines earlier this year upon announcing her campaign for governor in the state's 2014 election.
The first sitting governor to admit to being gay was New Jersey Governor James McGreevey. He resigned from office in 2004 after admitting to an affair with a staffer. McGreevey declared he was a "gay American" before stepping down from office.
Recent polls show Michaud with a narrow edge over LePage, with Cutler, who lost to LePage in 2010 by less than 2 points, trailing both candidates.
Gay-rights proponents in Maine said Michaud's announcement was yet another indication of the state's quickly evolving support for gay and lesbian rights.
"What we've definitely seen is that the conversation about gay and lesbian people is more thoughtful than it ever has been before," said Ian Grady, a spokesman for Equality Maine.
Maine voters last year approved a referendum in favor of gay marriage, making it one of the first three states, along with Washington and Maryland, to allow same-sex marriage by popular vote.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)