The next election for governor in Maine is still nearly two years away, but the race is already taking shape as contenders and their supporters begin winding up their campaigns.

Neither has formally declared their candidacy yet, but all signs point to a match between incumbent Democrat Janet Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“The gears are turning,” said Brent Littlefield, a longtime political consultant to LePage.

The machinery behind Mills is also well in motion.

Gov. Janet Mills poses for a portrait in her office at the Maine State House last April. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer, file

She has a committee in place to accept campaign donations, and she collected an early endorsement Thursday from EMILY’s List, the well-funded progressive political action committee that backs female candidates for high office. Although not a surprise, the PAC’s move could fuel important early contributions in the gubernatorial race.

The endorsement, 21 months ahead of the election, is also a clear signal that the Democratic incumbent is unlikely to face any major challenges from within her party.

Scott Ogden, the communications director for Mills, said she was “delighted” by the endorsement from EMILY’s List but was not focused on campaigning for re-election.

He said Mills is “singularly focused on battling the COVID-19 pandemic – rather than politics – and on charting a path of economic recovery and saving the lives of Maine people.”

Paul LePage discusses his time as Maine governor during a speech in 2019 at Colby College in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

LePage did not respond to requests for an interview about the election, but the Republican Party seems to be clearing a lane for him, and he has said publicly several times he plans to challenge Mills in 2022.

“If I’m breathing, I’m running,” LePage told WGAN talk radio host Matt Gagnon in an interview shortly after the November 2020 election.

The key issue in the campaign is sure to be the COVID-19 pandemic that has consumed Mills’ first term, and whether she has handled it with skill or, as critics see it, a heavy-handedness that has stifled individual liberties and inflicted unnecessary damage on Maine’s economy.

Although the pandemic has set up an unusual playing field and may create vulnerabilities for Mills, David Farmer, a longtime Democratic consultant, said most Democrats believe she has handled the crisis nearly flawlessly.

“She’s done a really good job in an unprecedented public health crisis,” said Farmer, who served on the staff of former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. “She’s done as good a job of just about anybody in the country in keeping the people in this state safe.”

Newly elected Maine Democratic Party Chairman Drew Gattine, once the subject of an obscenity-laced voicemail from LePage, offered similar praise for Mills’ performance.

“Frankly, I can’t imagine a better person that we could have had,” said Gattine, a former Westbrook legislator. “The job she has done has been outstanding; it shows in our numbers. We have one of the lowest rates of COVID in the country and one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.”

Gattine said Mills has also brought transparency to the governor’s office. He pointed out that she and other key officials, including Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, regularly appear in public to explain COVID-19 policy decisions and take questions from the media.

Gattine also reached beyond the pandemic to single out Mills’ quick action to implement Medicaid expansion, which LePage had delayed even though Maine voters had approved the expansion in a statewide referendum. As a lawmaker, Gattine fought for numerous bills to expand Medicaid, only to see LePage repeatedly sabotage those efforts with a string of vetoes when he sat in the governor’s office from 2011 to 2019.

“We now have 70,000 people who have gained health care because she did that on the first day of her administration,” Gattine said. “And now in hindsight, how fortunate are we as a state and how fortunate are those 70,000 people that, in the middle of this pandemic, they don’t have to worry where their health care is going to come from if they get sick.”

If LePage becomes the Republican nominee, he will treat Mainers to a far different perspective on Mills’ performance.

Since being replaced by Mills in 2018, he has steadily lobbed public criticism toward her administration, especially her handling of state finances and the pandemic.

His most recent target was Mills’ supplemental state budget proposal, which treated forgivable loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, created to help businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic, as taxable state income.

Many Maine businesses want conformity with the federal tax code, which doesn’t count the loans as income, but the Mills administration said matching the federal policy would cost the state $100 million in tax revenue.

After a public hearing on the proposal, where business advocates and accountants unleashed a torrent of criticism, Mills backtracked and redirected her administration to find a way to cover the $100 million shortfall.

But the political damage had been done. In a letter issued by Littlefield, his political consultant, LePage blasted the Mills budget proposal, calling it “a $100 million hit” on Maine’s small businesses.

Maine People Before Politics, a nonprofit organization that has been supporting LePage and his policies since 2011, has issued a series of press releases criticizing Mills’ policies on the budget, climate change and social services programs.

These and other statements from LePage or his camp, some of which started soon after Mills was elected, have so far sidelined other Republicans who may be pondering a run against Mills.

If LePage becomes the party’s nominee, Mainers can expect to see more of what they saw before – a candidate promoting tax cuts and small government who thrives on confrontation and misdirection, flouts social and political boundaries, and delights in misleading and criticizing the media.

“I just love to sit in my office and make up ways so they’ll write these stupid stories because they are just so stupid, it’s awful,” LePage told Gagnon, the conservative talk radio host, in July 2017.

Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas, who also was a strong supporter of President Donald Trump in 2020, has few qualms about a LePage candidacy. However, Kouzounas said she couldn’t openly support any candidate before party members select their nominee in the June 2022 primary.

“We have to wait and see how the field sets itself up,” Kouzounas said. “We know that Gov. Paul LePage is interested in running, and once he puts his paperwork in we will see if anyone else decides to run as a Republican. We think that (LePage) is a great candidate and we look forward to having him run.”

The state party’s executive director, Jason Savage, previously worked with LePage at the salvage retailer Marden’s and then on LePage’s first election campaign. He agrees that LePage would be a good candidate but said there may be others contemplating a run that party officials haven’t heard from yet.

There could be “career business owners or executives in companies that decide they want to make a difference. We don’t really have a way of knowing all of that. There’s always that possibility that there are people out there that are not talking to us,” Savage said. “They’ve got their own plan and they are going to do what they’re going to do.”

But not every Republican is keen to see the gubernatorial candidate be LePage, who frequently compares himself to Trump and was a strong supporter of his presidential campaign.

Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, who served as Senate president when LePage was governor, said many in his party are at a moment of reflection following Trump’s false assertions of election fraud and the insurrection he incited at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Thibodeau said many Republicans are asking themselves whether they want to continue to subscribe to the “scorched earth” brand of politics embodied by Trump and LePage or whether they would rather return to the kind of conservatism practiced by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Core and shared conservative values – including opposition to abortion, support of gun-owner rights and reducing government spending while cutting taxes and red tape – are losing way to selfish, unbridled personalities, Thibodeau said.

“What used to divide Republicans was their social credentials,” Thibodeau said. “Were they pro life? Are they fiscal conservatives? But now what divides Republicans is an allegiance to a personality, and that’s disappointing, it truly is.”

Thibodeau said the party would be wise to look toward U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican moderate who won a fifth term by 9 percentage points, even as Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden in Maine by about the same margin.

“The top of the ticket substantially underperformed in Maine,” Thibodeau said. “(LePage) has got to be asking himself if he thinks he can win in a state where Trump lost by nearly 10 points.”

Another former Republican state Senate president, Kevin Raye of Perry, echoed Thibodeau’s concerns. He noted that the Republican National Convention didn’t even adopt a party platform in 2020. Instead, the party simply voted to endorse Trump’s re-election effort.

“It’s no way to build a party,” Raye said. “It just isn’t. A party has to be based around shared values and ideals and ideas on policy, but they just threw the platform out and just said, ‘We are for Trump.’ How you can build on that going forward?”

Raye and Roger Katz of Augusta, another moderate Republican who once served in the state Senate, have such strong concerns about the direction of the party under leaders like Trump that they publicly endorsed Biden.

For that they paid a price last month, at least in Waldo County, where the Republican Committee passed a resolution banning them from running for public office again as Republicans.

The resolution likely has no real legal standing, but it has symbolic value as evidence of the emphasis being placed on fealty to a single candidate over support for shared conservative values.

Farmer, the Democratic consultant, said Maine voters are fed up and exhausted by the brand of politics employed by LePage and Trump and he predicts Mills would have an easy path to re-election if she were to face LePage next year.

“Voters have had enough of people who are unbounded by the facts,” Farmer said. “They are done with the drama.”

Mills may have history on her side, too. No incumbent governor seeking re-election in Maine has been defeated by a challenger since 1966, when Democrat Kenneth Curtis unseated Republican incumbent John Reed.

Who will be in the running for the Blaine House could become clearer in the next few months, as prospective candidates face deadlines for setting up committees to oversee fundraising in a race that saw $6.6 million in spending in 2018. The general election in November 2022 may very well include independent or third-party candidates as well as a Democratic and a Republican nominee.

Under the Maine Constitution, the ranked-choice system of counting ballots can’t be applied to state offices in a general election, so the winner in the election for Maine governor will be the candidate who gets a plurality of votes.

In 2010 and 2014 that was LePage, who won the office with 38 percent and 48 percent of the vote, respectively.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:20 a.m. Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, to correct the candidate who defeated John Reed in 1966.


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