Politico

Maine Braces Itself for Paul LePage


LEWISTON, Maine — Remember Paul LePage? Sure you do. He’s the former governor of Maine who has called himself, accurately enough, “Donald Trump before Donald Trump” — a hot-headed, vulgar and sometimes erratic figure who regularly made international headlines for doing things like celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day by telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” rushing up to a television crew at the State House to volunteer that a state senator liked “to give it to the people without providing Vaseline,” and leaving an unhinged, obscenity-filled message for a Democratic legislator which he said he wanted recorded and released “because I am after you.”

He joyfully mused about bombing newspaper offices and shooting rivals, cartoonists, and lawmakers. His final term was spent tangling with legislative leaders of his own party, having his vetoes of bipartisan legislation and budgets overturned, and watching his handpicked successor get walloped by Janet Mills, the Democratic attorney general with whom he had regularly sparred.

When term limits ended his governorship in 2018, he didn’t just leave office; he left Maine. “I’m going to retire and go to Florida,” he proclaimed just before Election Day, to the relief not only of Democrats but much of his own party. “I’m done with politics. I’ve done my eight years. It’s time for somebody else.”

But now: He’s back. Making good on years of threats, he filed papers last month to run for his old office against Mills, a popular incumbent backed by Democratic legislative majorities whose approval ratings have generally run more than 10 points higher than LePage’s best ratings during his eight years in office. And on Wednesday evening, he held a kickoff rally at the Augusta Civic Center, touting his fiscal austerity and casting his opponent as a tax-and-spend liberal who’d disrupted the economy and the future of schoolchildren by imposing lockdowns and closures during the pandemic. “May the Almighty give us the strength and wisdom to overcome what divides us,” he concluded.

In Maine, this has sent tremors through the political system — turning the state into something of a preview of what may happen to U.S. presidential politics if Donald Trump jumps back in.

While LePage has been in Florida, Maine politics has returned to a semblance of normality. The legislature passes bipartisan bills. The heads of state agencies and departments field lawmakers’ questions. Mills sometimes takes positions that upset conservatives or progressives — or even both — but she hasn’t been making headlines worldwide for regularly saying shocking and ghoulish things.

Voters here are still dealing with a resurgence of the coronavirus and the accompanying disruption of the labor market, which is filling hospital intensive care units and has forced restaurants, nursing homes and retailers to cut back hours or close entirely. Here on the ground, the 2022 election still seems far away for most Mainers.

But inside Maine politics, even as elected officials try to remain focused on recovering from a crisis that has racked all levels of government, storm winds are picking up. Interviews with strategists, former officials and journalists portrayed a state house rife with anxiety about what a LePage run will look like now that Trump has altered what is acceptable in mainstream politics, even more broadly and deeply than LePage himself did. There are Republicans, too, who are worried about the further damage a LePage run could do to their party, just as it was beginning to heal itself from the ruptures his campaign and administration provoked. LePage has declined to speak to the media in these early stages of the campaign and didn’t respond to POLITICO Magazine’s requests.

But there’s also a countercurrent of excited expectation among the former governor’s myriad, diehard fans, which is further amplifying the fear on the other side. This excited, relentlessly engaged base is, after all, what led to upset wins for the former governor in two previous elections. And nobody who has to stand in a primary election wants to upset them, which may account for Sen. Susan Collins’ Tuesday endorsement of LePage, a man who in 2016 said she was “done” in Maine politics — “she’s really cooked her goose” — for not being sufficiently loyal to Trump.

“[LePage’s] style of politics is dangerous and his policies are dangerous, and together they make him doubly dangerous,” says Democratic political operative David Farmer, who was deputy chief of staff to LePage’s predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci. “I just hope that our politics have turned after eight years of LePage and four years of Trump and that those calls to our ugliest side aren’t answered anymore.”

But he’s been underestimated before, in 2010 and 2014 — and many Mainers don’t want to make the same mistake again, including the Republicans who didn’t think he could win the first time. “There was nothing in his background that would have led a thinking person to think he would be good for the state of Maine, other than his rhetoric about lower taxes and less government intrusion,” says Republican political consultant Lance Dutson, a former Collins aide who has been critical of LePage and Trump. “All of us jerks who thought we knew everything laughed behind our hand at him.”

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LePage was the most divisive governor in Maine’s history, inviting comparisons to Trump, whose presidential candidacy LePage supported early and enthusiastically. And in some important ways, their political trajectories are similar.

But unlike Trump, LePage was born with nothing. The second-eldest of 18 children, he was raised in the tenements of Little Canada, a densely populated Franco-American neighborhood squeezed between the textile mills on the riverfront of Lewiston, a scrappy industrial city of 40,000. Area residents recall his hustle and hard work, traits that eventually drew the attention of a young up-and-coming businessman, Peter Snowe, who would later marry another Lewiston orphan, Olympia Bouchles, the future U.S. senator. When LePage was 17, Snowe called in a favor to the president of Bangor’s Husson College, got his young mentee admitted and, with another businessman, paid his first year’s tuition.

“My only option was to work hard and outsmart my opponents,” LePage recalled of his escape from what he said would otherwise been a life of poverty in an interview with the late conservative activist Robert Shaffer in 2010. “For me it was a matter of seeing the Haves and the Have Nots, and making a conscious decision to be one of the Haves.”

LePage went on to get an MBA and serve in a series of senior financial administration roles at industrial companies, a consultancy that specialized in winding down bankrupt businesses, and as a general manager of Marden’s, a chain of retail salvage stores based in Waterville, a struggling mill town of 16,000 in central Maine, where he was elected mayor in 2004.

LePage won the gubernatorial election in 2010 with the support of just 38 percent of the electorate in a five-way race, hired his inexperienced daughter as an aide, attacked the press in his inaugural address, and unveiled an agenda so radical, Republican lawmakers declined to support swaths of it.

In a state with a long tradition of electing civil, consensus-minded centrists to statewide office — late Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Olympia Snowe and independent Sen. Angus King, to name a few — LePage generated controversies faster than they could be resolved.

“LePage’s style is very similar to Trump’s, though LePage came in with more experience in governing,” says University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried, referring to LePage’s prior tenure as a mayor and city councilor in Waterville.

After eight years as governor, LePage’s wife, Ann, wanted to retire to Florida. LePage had other plans.

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Now, on the eve of another election that LePage could win, many in Democratic politics, and some Republicans, in Maine are shuddering. “Those were terrible times — the ugliness, the racism — and as the distance gets larger since he was in office, we forget that,” says Farmer.

Republicans, Democrats and independents alike worry about the people that the LePage campaign run will energize. “LePage needs to shore up his base, and it’s made up of white supremacists, anti-vaxxers, QAnon believers and hardcore conservatives who believe the 2020 election was stolen and are pushing for some sort of authoritarian rule,” says Andy O’Brien, a former journalist who now tracks and exposes extremist groups as a hobby. “And Paul LePage is a very authoritarian person. I don’t think this next year is going to be pretty.”

The ongoing pandemic emphasized the importance of steady, science-based management in the face of actual crisis, argues Maine Democratic Party Chair Drew Gattine, who is also the former legislative appropriations committee co-chair. “This state performed [about as well as] the country during this pandemic, whether you look at health care or economic performance,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine Maine would be doing better if he had been at the helm during this pandemic.”

Most Republicans welcome LePage’s return, including the top leadership of the state party. Republican Party Chair Demi Kouzounas announced her group was “absolutely thrilled” about his candidacy the very day he filed papers and called him “the only credible candidate running for the Republican nomination.”

But LePage reshaped the Maine GOP during his tenure in much the same way Trump did to the national party, driving out polite, socially liberal, fiscally conservative politicos and doubling down on racist dog whistles, anti-immigrant sentiment and visceral tribal politics. Nobody expects those changes to be dialed back as long as he is on the scene, and probably not after that, either.

Many county committees were taken over by LePage loyalists in 2010, and earlier this year, the one in Waldo County — halfway up the coast from Lewiston — went so far as to pass a resolution banning former state Senate President Kevin Raye and another former Republican state senator, Roger Katz, from running for office in Maine. Their crime? Turning against Trump ahead of the November 2020 election. Meanwhile, three sitting GOP legislators’ participation in a July rally in the county seat, Belfast, featuring a prominent Holocaust denier Robert David Steele and one of the nation’s leading vaccine conspiracy theorists, Christiane Northrup, received no such censure.

Members of the former establishment wing are worried their party is diminishing itself by demanding allegiance not to policies but to personalities. “The party has been almost completely replaced from what I recognize, or have ever known, as the Republican Party,” Raye, also a longtime chief of staff to Sen. Olympia Snowe, told Maine Public radio recently. “Many of the people who were involved, and activists who worked in the trenches for years, are no longer even involved in the party.”

“There are a lot of conversations going on where people are asking, ‘Is this our party anymore? And what can we do about it?’” Katz told a reporter earlier this summer.

“He brings out a set of people who don’t believe in the Republican Party or the ‘political establishment,’ but they truly believe in Paul LePage,” says former Republican state Sen. Garrett Mason, a conservative who still found himself in the governor’s crosshairs from time to time. “Their No. 1 thing isn’t some bureaucratic promise or accomplishment, it’s the fact he was openly fighting for them, without compromise, if, ands or buts.”

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Between incumbency, relative approval ratings and recent election results, most political watchers give Mills the edge. But what worries Republicans and Democrats alike in Maine right now is that LePage could upset all of those predictions and win handily. He’s done it twice before.

When he burst onto the statewide political scene to run for governor in 2010, few took the two-term mayor seriously. Polling by rivals of reliable GOP primary voters suggested the upstart firebrand — who gave fiery anti-government, pro-creationist speeches to Tea Party supporters — had little to no support.

That June, he crushed all six of his GOP rivals under a tidal wave of new voters, garnering more votes than the next two candidates combined. In November, he eked out a win with 38 percent of the vote in a five-way race as his opponents split their vote between independent Eliot Cutler (who got 36 percent) and a hapless Democrat, former Maine Senate President and House Speaker Libby Mitchell (who got just 19). A majority of Mainers couldn’t believe what had just happened, and not a few chalked it up to a fluke.

Four years later, LePage’s approval rating had never broken 50 percent, and pundits predicted he’d be ousted by his experienced challenger, veteran legislator and six-term Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, himself a working-class Franco-American. Instead LePage boosted his share of the vote to 48 percent, edging out Michaud by 5 points and Cutler by 40 points.

His biggest obstacle to recapturing office is Mills herself, a former legislator and career public prosecutor, who as attorney general had no problem locking horns with LePage. (He sued her, unsuccessfully, for joining a legal effort to protect young immigrants from deportation; she sued him for withholding $4.9 million in legislatively approved funds from her office.) Mills — scion of a western Maine political dynasty closely allied to Margaret Chase Smith — has generally governed from the center, kept Maine one of the safest places in the country throughout most of the pandemic, and has an approval rating in the mid-50s and low 60s. (Like LePage, she declined to speak to POLITICO about the race.)

Mason, who was Republican majority leader in the state senate in the final two years LePage was in office, says this race will be the “fight of his life.” “It’s going to be a blood sport,” he says. “It’s no secret that the two of them do not have the highest regard for each other and have very different views of governing.”

LePage also has a major advantage he did not enjoy a decade ago: a national profile and the support that comes with it. “Paul is the caricature the national Republicans want; they couldn’t come in here from central casting and come up with a better character,” says Dutson. “He will have third party money, field work, additional data and polling, a fundraising apparatus. Paul still has his people around him, but D.C. is going to run this race.”

LePage’s best hope may be to run a replay of 2010, when his opponents split their votes between centrist and left candidates, giving him a narrow victory. Anger over that race drove Maine voters to institute, via referenda, ranked choice voting at all levels to end this spoiler effect. Ironically, however, while it is now used in primaries and for federal races, a quirk in the state constitution has prevented it from being implemented for state-level general elections, including next year’s gubernatorial.

“What you have to remember about Paul LePage, which is also true about Donald Trump, is that they both draw people to the polls who normally don’t vote, and that makes it hard to predict the makeup of the voting electorate,” says Cutler, the independent who nearly beat LePage in 2010. “I wouldn’t be sanguine.”

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