When it comes to whom Maine Republicans might want as their standard-bearer in 2018 and replacement for combative, plain-talking Gov. Paul LePage, the party’s faithful could be facing a tough decision on June 12.

The consternation for faithful Republicans arises mostly because all four candidates are so ideologically similar that the choice between them will hinge mostly on personality, or on how well their respective campaigns can tout their political experience – or lack thereof – to primary voters.

“The quality of our field is so good for Republicans, that’s what’s making the choice difficult,” says Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party. “We are really pleased to have a field of candidates that is making that decision a challenge for Republican primary voters.”

The field includes House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon, former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of South China, and businessman Shawn Moody of Gorham.

FIELD MORE DIVERSE 8 YEARS AGO

LePage’s rural populist base has largely stuck with him since he first won office in 2010, emerging from a seven-way June primary with 37.4 percent of the Republican vote and winning the general election in November with 37.6 percent.

But the field of candidates in the Republican primary eight years ago was much more diverse than this year. At least five of those in the race were moderates running to the left of LePage, including ski industry developer Les Otten, former state Sen. Peter Mills and Steve Abbott, the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

The size and breadth of the field fueled a primary turnout that was much higher for Republicans than for Democrats, who were choosing from five candidates with similar ideologies – much like this year’s Republican field.

Republicans attracted 8,480 more voters to the polls than Democrats in 2010, even though Democrats had 48,457 more voters enrolled in the party. The primary turnout was 48 percent for Republicans compared with 38 percent for Democrats.

Democrats still have the upper hand in total enrollment, with 328,393 voters compared with 276,162 Republicans, according to registration records at the Secretary of State’s Office. Unenrolled voters, commonly called independents, still represent the state’s largest bloc, however, with 376,422 in their ranks.

SEEKING TO BE ‘LEPAGE’S HEIR’

That none of the Republicans in the 2018 primary appear to be running to the center is a reflection of where the party’s base remains, says James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.

“They all seek to represent themselves as LePage’s heir – Fredette and Mason by their support for his agenda in the State House, Mayhew by her being the face and leader for the governor’s views on health and social services, and Moody as the outsider conservative businessman,” Melcher said. “None follow LePage’s style, but all will be running as continuations of what he’s done in office.”

Moody, who ran as an independent against LePage in 2010, now has many of LePage’s top political operatives. That includes LePage’s daughter, Lauren LePage, and his longtime political adviser, Brent Littlefield. But both Moody and Mayhew may have a hard time convincing long-term Republicans that they are legitimate conservatives.

Moody joined the party in 2017, just weeks before he announced his campaign, and Mayhew is a former Democrat who once lobbied for the Maine Hospital Association. Mason’s liability is his youth and Fredette’s campaign has, so far, struggled to raise cash – although LePage, too, was outspent on his way to the Blaine House in 2010.

Although all four are making inroads with their LePage bona fides, none have edged ahead significantly and, so far, none have been endorsed by LePage himself, although LePage’s wife, first lady Ann LePage, tapped Moody as her favorite during the Maine Republican Party’s convention this month.

Mayhew, meanwhile, has a long list of conservative Republican state representatives who have endorsed her candidacy.

It’s likely LePage will back whichever candidate wins in June, as all have vowed to carry on his agenda if elected.

COMPROMISE OR TOE PARTY LINE?

Lance Dutson, a Republican political consultant and longtime LePage critic, says moderate Republicans may look for the most statesmanlike candidate. He says that while Moody and Mason have aligned themselves with LePage on policy matters, they may be viewed as being more even-tempered, while Mayhew and Fredette have track records of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with LePage and supporting his take-no-prisoners brand of negotiation.

“Their approaches prior to this time have been more palatable to folks who you would brand as moderate or maybe kind of, more old-school Republicans,” Dutson said of Moody and Mason.

He said Mason may face a liability for having been opposed to publicly financed campaigns under Maine’s Clean Election Act but then becoming the only Republican clean election candidate in the race. He said most voters won’t distinguish much between a campaign that is publicly financed and one that is taxpayer-funded and that Mason has a steady conservative voting record in the Legislature and can also point to supporting LePage’s policy agenda time and time again over the last eight years. He said Mason and Moody also appear more credible when they say they can work across party lines or build common ground in governing.

“Politics really can’t be a zero-sum game. Our system is not built to be that way,” Dutson said, noting that Mayhew and Fredette have stood firmly with LePage and sometimes not to positive endings, like a government shutdown last July.

Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono, agrees that the June primary is likely to be more a contest of personality than policy. He said all four candidates will make an appeal to LePage’s base, which is dominated by rural Mainers from the white middle and working classes.

The Republican contenders need to make that appeal with authenticity, Brewer said, and convince voters that they are going to be the best one to “not be a typical politician … somebody who speaks the truth even when it is not politically correct and somebody who will do what needs to be done even if it’s unpopular.”

“This race is tied up in those beliefs and characteristics,” he said, “It might be settled on who can best lay claim to those kind of attributes.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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