Former Maine Governor Paul LePage has called people of color and “people of Hispanic origin” the “enemy right now” in his war on crime. He’s said drug dealers come from states like New York and Connecticut, sell heroin, and “impregnate a young, white girl before they leave.” He’s threatened a state Democratic lawmaker for whom he left a voicemail calling him a “socialist cocksucker.” One of his first policy moves as governor was to dramatically weaken the state’s environmental laws. After leaving office, he opted to move to Florida.
And it’s entirely possible that LePage could become governor again in 2022.
LePage is already the de facto Republican nominee for governor. Tuesday was the filing deadline, and no candidates other than LePage and Janet Mills, the incumbent Democratic governor, submitted their paperwork to be candidates. In a state where elections are oftentimes spoiled or decided by independent candidacies, it’s unusual for a high-profile statewide contest to be a clean head-to-head matchup, but that is very much the case in the 2022 Maine governor’s race.
LePage and Mills are old rivals. When LePage was governor, Mills was the defiant Democratic attorney general. As governor, LePage cut off funds to the attorney general’s office, pushing Mills to threaten legal action. When LePage vetoed a ban on conversion therapy, the move sparked a scorching rebuke from Mills. In 2017, LePage ended up suing Mills for refusing to represent him and his positions. Two years earlier, LePage wanted the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to say whether he needed to get permission from Mills to hire an outside lawyer if Mills refused to represent him. When LePage asked for the court’s ruling, Mills argued that the court should ignore him and that his question was hypothetical.
And in this state that tilts blue nationally but still elects plenty of Republicans, polling shows a split electorate on Mills’s job performance and LePage’s candidacy. A September Spectrum News/Ipsos poll found 48 percent of respondents approved of Mills’s job performance, while 49 percent disapproved. And on LePage, 48 percent said LePage should run for office again, and 46 percent said he shouldn’t.
“You’ve got a current governor and former governor running against each other who have very high profiles, but they also have a long history with one another that’s been contentious,” said Adam Cote, a former Democratic candidate for governor. “They had some pretty public fights.”
At first blush one could be forgiven for thinking of Maine as a consistently Democratic-leaning state. A Republican nominee for president hasn’t won Maine since 1988. But Maine hasn’t had two Democratic senators since 1979 (Senator Angus King is an independent who caucuses with Democrats). And for many years, the state was represented in the Senate by two GOP women, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. In the 2020 campaign cycle, it seemed like Democrats would finally add a senator from Maine. Sara Gideon, the Democratic nominee running against Collins, emerged as a fundraising juggernaut. But Collins survived the 2020 cycle, winning handily and adding to the long list of examples of how Mainers do, in fact, vote Republican.
Still, one would think reelecting LePage would be a stretch. When he left office in 2019, he polled in the bottom half of approval ratings for governors nationally. His trail of crude and controversial comments was long and expansive. He had to apologize after referring to the IRS as the “new Gestapo” during a radio address. LePage once told the NAACP to “kiss my butt.” He’s also prone to other types of political antics. He was once so furious at Democrats over rejecting the then-governor’s nominee to run the state’s unemployment insurance commission that he canceled a swearing-in ceremony for a new state senator.
But even Democrats concede that LePage is competitive. “Paul LePage still has a following. I think Governor Mills has done a good job with her leadership during the pandemic, restoring funding to the towns to mitigate property taxes that LePage took away,” said Maine lobbyist Jim Mitchell. “So I think it’ll be an interesting conversation about whose record as governor has been better.”
Asked why LePage still has a following, Mitchell paused and then said: “People see him as one of them, in many ways. Some people see him as the antithesis of that. That’s what you get, just like Trump still has a following.”
In his comeback bid, LePage has also promised to be better. At a fundraiser over the summer, he said, “I’ve been a bit controversial in the past,” adding that he hoped “to clean up my act this time.”
But one of LePage’s bigger critiques of Mills’s tenure is mask mandates, and the former governor has attended an anti-mask rally. Fighting vaccine and mask mandates is a big part of LePage’s critique of Mills’s stewardship. That has been the core theme of his platform as he was collecting signatures to qualify to run for office again.
“For Covid, she was one of the more restrictive governors in the country. She shut down quickly, she maintained the state of emergency for an extraordinarily long amount of time—everything from mask mandates to the vaccine mandate for healthy workers; the state was erring on the side of extreme caution but exercising executive authority to a degree that was above and beyond what a lot of her peers did,” said Matthew Gagnon, the CEO of the conservative Maine Policy Institute. Gagnon also said there’s apprehension among Republicans on Mills’s handling of the state budget. “Prior to Covid, she had already expanded the size of the Maine budget by more than $800 million, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for us it is. And then when Covid hit, there was just this gigantic influx of money that’s come, and our budget has been exploding in size, and not very many people here, even the governor’s supporters, think that is sustainable in the long term, to be spending as much money as she has.”
Mills has not run from her record on the pandemic. The state currently has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. The first ad of her reelection campaign touted her leadership during the Covid pandemic and a proposal to return half of the state’s budget surplus over to Mainers. Mills has also rolled out a proposal for free two-year community college.
There are plenty of factors at play in Mills’s favor as she runs for reelection, but LePage cannot be counted as a sideshow candidate who’s just trying to get a few more minutes in the spotlight. Republicans nationally see it that way, too. “We feel very good about our position up there,” Republican Governors Association communications director Jesse Hunt wrote in an email to The New Republic. He said LePage’s advantages are “poor policies from Mills; a terrible national environment for Democrats; and a GOP candidate that has passionate supporters and a proven ability to win.”
Both Republicans and Democrats expect spending in this race to dwarf that of past cycles, including the record-setting 2020 Senate race between Collins and Gideon. The Maine Republican Party has already said it is booking $3.9 million in TV time for the race—over $1 million more than it spent in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
The outcome of the Maine race will have obvious national implications. Maine has four electoral votes. Donald Trump lost it both times—but both times, he squeezed one electoral vote out of the state, since Maine is one of two states that splits its electoral votes by congressional district. A governor can do a lot to influence how his or her state votes in a presidential election, so what’s at stake here goes far beyond LePage’s crude rhetoric.