The Common Core education standards are reviled by tea party activists but glorified by business interests. That’s become a thorny problem for Gov. Paul LePage, who needs the support of both groups for his re-election bid in 2014.

LePage’s effort to distance himself from Common Core was evident last week, when he disavowed support for the standards and, in a separate move, issued an executive order saying the state would not divulge personal student information to the federal government.

The governor’s statements seemed aimed at his supporters on the right, who were crucial in lifting him to the Blaine House in 2010. But those statements won’t endear him to business interests, which have emerged as strong backers of Common Core.

The grade-by-grade educational expectations for skills such as mathematics or science are being promoted by corporate entities, including ExxonMobil and the Republican-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They are also supported by the White House.

Yet education autonomy and student privacy are at the heart of a growing national rebellion against Common Core, an education initiative developed by states in collaboration with each other. The strongest backlash, amplified by political personalities such as Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin, originates in the tea party and the Republican Party’s libertarian faction.

Other activists have taken the conspiracy further, claiming the initiative could be a plot between President Obama and the Gates Foundation, another backer of Common Core.

It’s against that national backdrop that LePage and other Republican governors like Georgia’s Nathan Deal began issuing executive orders to either clarify or distance themselves from Common Core. In each instance the reaction from concerned conservative activists, Democratic allies and independent observers has been the same: The executive orders aren’t practical, they’re political.

“This is more politics than anything else,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor for the University of Maine. “It’s more politics aimed at shoring up support in (the tea party) part of the Republican Party.”

That assessment was echoed by the order’s intended recipients.

“Politically it’s a great gesture, but it doesn’t change anything,” said Erick Bennett, founder of the Maine Equal Rights Center, a group collecting signatures for a ballot proposal that would overturn the Common Core initiative in Maine.

Other Republican governors — six according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — have appeased the resistance by delaying implementation of Common Core.

A similar move is likely harder for LePage. Stephen Bowen, his outgoing education commissioner, repeatedly advocated for Common Core. Bowen is also a member of Chiefs for Change, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s school reform group, composed of mostly Republican state education commissioners who include Common Core in a reform agenda that includes school vouchers and merit pay.

LePage has other political calculations to consider. Common Core is backed by monied, corporate interests. Microsoft founder Bill Gates is an advocate. ExxonMobil ran an advocacy campaign on TV commercials during the 2013 Masters golf tournament. The company is also a major political player, donating $625,000 to the Republican Governors Association in 2010 and $650,000 in 2012, according to disclosures.

The association also is a key factor in gubernatorial contests, spending heavily in targeted races.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is another major donor to the association, giving $2.25 million in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The association’s Maine political action committee spent $1.2 million on LePage in 2010. The governor will be courting similar assistance in 2014.

Recently advocacy groups backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have jumped into the anti-Common Core movement, attaching it to Obama. Some of the groups have dubbed the initiative “Obamacore,” a spin on Obamacare, the pejorative nickname for the federal health care law that fueled the tea party in 2010.

It’s unclear who will win the Common Core battle, tea party activists or a Republican establishment hoping to stay in the good graces of powerful business interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. According to Professor Brewer, the national battle for control of the Republican Party is being fought at the state level, too.

“I also don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s a fight going on for the heart and soul of the Maine Republican Party, between the more establishment wing and the tea party wing,” Brewer said.

The ideological rift among Republicans has been well-documented. Despite calls for party unity, the schism remains. In mid-August, six members of the Republican State Committee abruptly resigned, citing the governor’s veto of bills that would have regulated law enforcement use of drones, protected cellphone privacy and allowed for the sale of raw milk.

Also cited by the disgruntled committee members was LePage’s advancement of Common Core.

LePage attempted to assuage some of those concerns in an Aug. 3 radio address, when he announced he was issuing an executive order on drones and preparing a bill to allow for the sale of raw milk.

The governor may appear to have a more difficult balancing act with Common Core. However, Brewer said, there’s probably a ceiling on the defection of tea party supporters, who won’t have alternatives to LePage in 2014.

“If I’m Paul LePage and trying to figure out who I’m trying to balance against, I’m going to try and keep the (U.S. Chamber of Commerce) on my side,” Brewer said. “Yeah, I don’t want to irritate the libertarian wing either, but the reality is that to use your vote to register against a candidate, you have to have (another) option.”

Additionally, Brewer said, LePage has been pretty good to his base.

“He’s really delivered a lot to that wing of the party,” he said

Clarification: This story was updated to change a reference to Common Core, an initiative developed by states. 

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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