Maine’s conservative churches have been known to produce a political miracle now and then. Don’t be surprised if one of them makes Garrett Mason the state’s next governor.

Mason is currently in a four-way race for the Republican nomination, seen by many as a battle between former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and businessman Shawn Moody. Mason, 32, is still a stranger to most voters.

He’s trying to be Maine’s youngest chief executive, and the first sitting legislator to be elected governor since Burton Cross in 1951.

But it would be a mistake to underestimate him, in no small part because of the state’s informal network of small churches, which has been credited over the years with getting their people on-message and out to vote through under-the-radar organizing.

Mason doesn’t campaign on stereotypical social conservative issues, but he doesn’t have to. The Lisbon Falls native is a product of Christian schools and Christian politics, and he’s been able to garner a raft of endorsements from pastors who understand where his heart lies.

“I grew up in a church … it’s part of who I am,” Mason said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We have reached out to churches and we have been able to talk to them in ways that other candidates can’t.”

Maine is one of the least religious states in the country, ranking near the bottom of every poll that asks people how important religion is to their lives. But the influence of Christian conservatives in Republican politics here shows how enthusiasm can be more important than numbers. They don’t need to be a majority to win.

Less than a third of the state’s voters are registered Republicans, and less than half of them can be counted on to turn out for a primary. A motivated bloc of voters in a low-turnout election can deliver results that may not actually be a miracle, but can look pretty miraculous.

Remember Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s surprise win in 14 of 16 Maine counties in the 2016 presidential caucuses? Donald Trump was cruising to a victory, and had Gov. LePage heading his campaign here.

But he got swamped in Maine, thanks to much heavier than expected turnout that was three times the number of Republicans who voted in 2012.

Or what about the 2010 gubernatorial primary? What looked like a three-way race among Peter Mills, Les Otten and Steve Abbott turned into a rout by a little-known mayor of Waterville named Paul LePage, who also benefited from a huge turnout that had not been anticipated by the experts.

And there was the 2006 primary, where Mills and former U.S. Rep. David Emery were beaten by one-term state Sen. Chandler Woodcock, who, like Mason, had the backing of the churches of central Maine.

Mason has more than the pastors’ endorsements.

He is the only publicly financed candidate in the Republican race, guaranteeing him enough money to compete.

He showed organizational strength by gathering both the 2,000 signatures he needed to get on the ballot and the 3,200 $5 checks he needed to qualify for Clean Election funds before any other candidate was able to. (Democrat Betsy Sweet and independent Terry Hayes have since qualified for public financing.)

And the early debates have shown that the Republican front-runners are vulnerable. Mayhew is getting all the blame for the many failures of the state’s human services programs that took place when she was at the helm of DHHS. And Moody might be charming and folksy, but, so far, he’s been a terrible candidate. He looks tortured trying to spit out half-remembered sound bites that he’s been force-fed by his staff. He might get better, but he’s running out of time.

What does Mason tell the pastors when he asks for their votes? He says he just promises to listen.

“People are just looking to be represented.” he said Tuesday. “They are tired of being told that you are allowed to have your views within the four walls of the church and nowhere else. … Churches should be part of the public discourse, and not just on matters of morality.”

Mason said he wants to see faith-based organizations partnering with the state to deliver drug treatment, for instance. The Bible influences his views on taxation, and how he relates to people he disagrees with in Augusta. “Just treat everybody kindly,” he said.

Part of his appeal to religious conservatives is also likely to be his near-absolute opposition to abortion, which could help him in a primary but hurt him in November, if he were to win the nomination.

But that might not matter. As LePage has shown, a highly motivated minority can beat a divided opposition.

It would not take a miracle for someone like Mason to win a four-way race in November.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich

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