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Maine GOP’s 2022 strategy relies on tricky balance between economy and culture wars

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AUGUSTA, Maine — The festivities included a Jeopardy game that featured questions poking fun at Democratic moves in Augusta. At the side of the hall, a mock Facebook “jail” stood behind portraits of Republican figures including former President Donald Trump.

With former Gov. Paul LePage at the top of the ticket in what is expected to be a good year for Republicans nationally, the Maine Republican Party’s 2022 convention was a symbolic kickoff for their attempt to oust Gov. Janet Mills and take back the Legislature. Early campaign pushes have focused on inflation and the unpopularity of President Joe Biden, a Democrat.

The convention on Friday and Saturday provided insight on the issues Republicans could focus on if they win back power in Augusta after four years of Democratic control. LePage and party lawmakers have focused more on fiscal issues, but the party’s 2022 platform gained attention for its focus on culture-war issues that have energized conservative activists recently.

The balance between those two issues could be important for Republicans in an election year that comes in a good national environment for them but still poses challenges in a state that has gotten more Democratic by registration since LePage’s last election in 2014. He focused on the economy during his convention speech, while others hit hot-button social issues more.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is running against Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills in Maine’s 2022 gubernatorial election, speaks at a press conference on energy policy in Falmouth on March 8, 2022. LePage framed his press conference across the street from a gas station to highlight rising prices. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

“It is costing more to heat our homes, to feed our children and to commute to work,” LePage said in his Saturday speech at the Augusta Civic Center. “All the while, this administration is tied to the idea of a failed policy and administration in Washington.”

Maine is predicted to have among the most competitive legislative elections in the U.S. this year as overall electoral conditions favor Republicans. Opposition to Biden, whose approval rating in Maine sat at just 43 percent in a recent Morning Consult poll, has been part of Republican messaging here during a wide focus on high gas prices and other rising costs.

“Every day when I talk to people, it’s inflation,” former Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, a restaurateur who served in the Legislature for a decade and is running in a June special election and a subsequent November race for an open swing seat.

Mills made temporary cost relief in the form of $850 checks for most Mainers the centerpiece of her budget offer this spring after legislative Republicans had pushed to have the state return at least half of its $1.2 billion budget surplus to taxpayers. The checks will begin going out in June.

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Republican lawmakers say that bigger reforms would be on the books if they can take back power in Augusta, along with reversing certain other policies from Mills’ tenure. LePage has anchored his campaign on phasing out the income tax, something he unsuccessfully tried during his tenure. He has not said how he would propose doing it on a permanent basis.

“We need structural tax reform, and we need to repeal a lot of the legislation that’s been enacted that I think is adding to costs right now,” said Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner, who is running for his third House term.

He pointed to a bill passed last year that charges fees to producers of packaged goods to cover the costs of recycling as an example of the legislation Republicans would look to repeal. Democrats touted the bill as a way to shift recycling costs from municipalities to corporations, but Republicans have branded it a “grocery tax,” arguing it will drive up costs.

Despite the focus on tax and workforce issues from longtime legislators, cultural issues drew some of the strongest reactions at the convention on Friday. A new Maine Republican platform calls for all but eliminating teaching or discussions of issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as banning “racial scapegoating” and other aspects of “critical race theory” in classrooms.

LePage has hit on some of these themes in low-key appearances across the state, but others focused more on them during the convention. Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and underdog Caratunk selectman Liz Caruso, who are running in a June primary for the right to face Democratic Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s conservative-leaning 2nd District, said schools are teaching kids to “hate America.” Caruso called the Biden administration “treasonous.”

Liz Caruso, Republican candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, acknowledges applause at the Republican state convention, Saturday, April 30, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

After a lengthy debate, Republican delegates voted to keep language in the platform maintaining opposition to same-sex marriage, which has been legal in Maine for nearly a decade and is proected at the federal level by a 2015 Supreme Court decision. Democrats raised the specter of an aggressive social agenda if Republicans win in November.

“Whether it’s lying about what Democrats have accomplished in Augusta or attacking LGBTQ+ Mainers, Paul LePage and the Maine GOP are committed to bringing their toxic culture wars to Maine,” Gaetan Davis, the executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, wrote in a fundraising email.

Republicans would not be looking to ban teaching of biology or sex ed if they took power in Augusta, said Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, noting the platform language had not undergone the rigorous process of legislation. But she said the debate on Friday was the product of concerns about education that parents had during the pandemic, and lawmakers should listen and try to determine the appropriate response.

“Some of our planks might seem kind of extreme, but that is in response to the extreme social issues we’re dealing with,” Arata said.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.