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Maine's 'Trump Before Trump' Launches a Comeback Bid

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AUGUSTA, Maine – Before there was Donald Trump, there was Paul LePage. And now, after four years largely away from politics, the former Maine governor is launching a comeback bid to oust his Democratic successor, turning the 2022 race into one of the nation’s marquee gubernatorial contests.

© (Portland Press Herald/Getty Images) PORTLAND, ME – JUNE 20: Gov. Paul LePage speaks at Eggs & Issues breakfast at the Holiday Inn by the Bay on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. (Staff photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

LePage, a pugnacious Republican who was elected governor of Maine in 2010 and 2014, pursued conservative policies on both economic and social issues. But he attracted the most attention for doing and saying things that offended his critics.

After the NAACP called him out for declining to take part in Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, he said, “Tell them to kiss my butt.” He announced that he’d been maintaining a binder with mug shots of drug dealers, of whom 90%, he said, were Black or Hispanic, contrary to official data. LePage subsequently left a vulgar voicemail for a state lawmaker and mused about challenging him to a duel.

In 2018, with LePage term-limited out of office, Maine voters opted for a different type of governor: Democrat Janet Mills, a less bombastic figure with deep political roots in the state.

Mills was elected four times as district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, then was appointed attorney general. In that post, Mills often sparred with LePage, refusing to represent positions adopted by the governor. After prevailing in a competitive Democratic primary, Mills won the governorship with 51% of the vote – crossing the majority electoral threshold that LePage never managed to reach during his two races, due to votes cast for strong third-party candidates.

In office, Mills worked with the Democratic-controlled legislature to enact policy priorities that had stalled for eight years under LePage. She implemented a Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act that had been passed by voters in 2017 but was blocked by LePage. She tightened renewable energy requirements for electricity and provided funds to increase solar power, and she increased state education funding for local school districts.

At the same time, Mills steered a somewhat moderate course, frustrating progressives by striking deals with Republicans on guns and paid leave, and for filling the state’s rainy-day fund while ignoring calls to raise taxes.

Then, in 2020 and 2021, Mills grappled with the coronavirus pandemic, with relatively good results. Maine has consistently had one of the lowest per-capita case rates in the nation during the pandemic, and the state trails only Vermont and Massachusetts in the percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated.

“Mills is quiet, but she does deliver,” says Kenneth Palmer, a longtime political scientist at the University of Maine. “Temperamentally, it would be hard to have a greater contrast than Paul LePage and Janet Mills.”

In July, LePage made official what many observers had expected for months, even years: He’ll be running to unseat his successor next year.

While LePage has touted his connections to Trump and appeared at an anti-mask rally, he’s taken other steps to soften his image.

“I’ve been a bit controversial in the past,” LePage acknowledged at a fundraiser this summer. “Hope to clean up my act this time.”

Even LePage’s critics acknowledge that the former governor’s personal story is remarkable. The oldest son of 18 children, LePage grew up desperately poor and the victim of child abuse. After running away at 11, he lived on the streets for two years but later became successful in business. He was elected to the City Council of Waterville and won the mayorship before being elected governor. After Mills succeeded him, LePage moved to Florida, but he returned to take a bartending gig in Boothbay Harbor.

Video: State Sen. Paul Gazelka running for governor (KARE-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul)

State Sen. Paul Gazelka running for governor
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“He’s endeared himself to a lot of people,” says Jason Libby, a longtime political observer in Augusta. “There’s a sense that ‘he stood up for us and took care of us.'”

Observers say the softer, “New LePage” approach makes tactical sense, given the state’s shift from a 3-point Hillary Clinton presidential victory in 2016 to a 9-point Joe Biden victory in 2020. Still, they wonder how effective LePage’s rebranding will be, given the eight-year long impression he made as governor.

“The old LePage is true to his personality – a tiger cannot change his stripes,” says Sandy Maisel, an emeritus Colby College professor of government. “His only appeal is as the ‘Trump before Trump.’ That is why he won in the past, and that is what his followers are looking for.”

Meanwhile, demographics pose a challenge for LePage. He has traditionally fared best among older, rural voters. But whatever growth the state has experienced has been occurring in more Democratic-leaning regions.

“Just flip to the Bangor Daily News obituary page,” says James E. Tierney, a native of Brunswick who served as Maine’s Democratic attorney general from 1981 to 1991. “Our death rate is very high, and where the growth exists, the people are not voting for Paul LePage.”

For LePage, who’s never lost an election, Mills could be his toughest opponent yet.

“She’s tried cases with juries in a lot of working-class counties,” Tierney says. “She doesn’t mince words. It’ll be a knife fight.”

Maine has ranked-choice voting for federal races, but it does not have it for the gubernatorial race. This means that Mills’ touchy relationship with the left of her party could leave her open to a progressive challenger in the general election.

But none has materialized yet.

“She hasn’t gone left-wing on things that LePage could pounce on her for,” says James Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine-Farmington.

Another potential worry for Mills is the possibility that Democrats won’t be motivated to turn out to vote – a common problem in midterm elections.

“There might be turnout issues in 2022 for Democrats,” says Amy Fried, a University of Maine political scientist. But, she added, “the thought of LePage being on the ballot will help with that.”

The most talked-about potential third-party candidate is more from the center than from the left: former state Sen. Tom Saviello, who has been both a Democrat and a Republican. His big issue is opposition to a renewable electricity line from Canada called the Central Maine Power corridor, a project that both Mills and LePage support. But observers say it’s unclear how attractive Saviello, who’s had a long career in the pulp and paper industry, would be as a progressive alternative to Mills, and that it’s also uncertain how much of a driving issue the corridor project will end up being in the gubernatorial race.

A Survey USA poll taken a few weeks before LePage got in the race found Mills at 45% and LePage at 38%. Mills also has history on her side: No incumbent Maine governor has failed to win a reelection bid since 1966.

This matches how experts in the state view the race: Mills is the modest favorite, but hardly a prohibitive one.

“She is viewed as having done a pretty good job during the pandemic, and the state’s financials look great,” says Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine.

LePage has yet to demonstrate that he can get to 50% in a two-person race. What’s keeping him a real threat to Mills is that his larger-than-life personality drives his supporters to the polls. The flip side is that it does the same for his opponents.

“LePage has a better chance than any conceivable challenger,” Melcher says. “It’s kind of like Justin Bieber. You may love him or hate him, but by God, you’ve heard of him.”

Copyright 2021 U.S. News & World Report

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