PORTLAND, Maine ( Associated Press) — Republican Paul Lepage, whose two terms as governor of Maine were dominated by his aggressive rhetoric and belligerent leadership, is calling for a political return.
With no protest, LePage sided for the Republican nomination for governor on Tuesday, setting up a fierce general election campaign against Democratic incumbent government Janet Mills. The race is one of a handful of competitive governors in this year’s midterm elections.
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The matchup revives a rivalry between LePage and Mills that dates back to the days when he was governor and she was attorney general. LePage sued Mills for refusing to defend his administration during several political disagreements that reached boiling point over then-President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeted to several Muslim-majority countries. LePage had to pay to use an outside lawyer.
But this time, they are facing off in a dramatically different political climate.
Lepage moved to Florida after leaving office in 2019 but returned after a year and decided to mount a third campaign. He enjoys the full support of the Republican Party, which has allowed him to focus his energy and financial resources on the general election. Mills, for his part, is seeking re-election in a difficult year for Democrats, weighed down by President Joe Biden’s low approval rating and widespread frustration with the party’s management of inflation and gas prices.
The campaign is emerging as a barometer of whether voters will be driven by economic concern or political civility this year.
LePage was fond of calling himself “Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” and he maintains a solid following among conservatives. A former councilor and mayor in Waterville, he was elected governor in a five-way race in 2010.
He received praise for pursuing conservative policies during his tenure, including reducing the tax burden and reducing Maine’s welfare rolls by tightening eligibility requirements and reducing the length of certain benefits.
But his tendency to hurt his policy agenda was often overshadowed. During the growing hostility towards the media, he joked that he wanted to bomb a newspaper. He called on the Portland chapter of the NAACP to “kiss my butt” and dismissed the dangers of an industrial chemical by saying that “the worst-case scenario is that some women may lose their beards.” When he ran for re-election in 2014, he was considered one of the weakest governors in the country.
Brunswick resident David Capuano, who is not nominated in either party, said he is in the camp of voters who believe Lepage should leave.
“This man is a mini-Donald Trump,” Capuano said. “The guy is a bully and loud. I don’t like hooligans.”
Ray Richardson, a Republican and radio talk show host at WLOB in Portland, said people remember LePage doing some good things during his eight years. He added that LePage is “laser-focused” on solving new problems.
“He is a known quantity. We were enduring a good time under him,” Richardson said. “He left Maine in a good place.”
For her part, when Mills came into office in 2019, her first action was to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act — something that LePage refused to do. She borrowed a Republican idea to return the bulk of the $1.2 billion budget surplus to taxpayers in the form of an $850 inflation relief check. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, she issued an executive order requiring residents to wear masks, and she later implemented a vaccine mandate for health care workers, angering conservatives who felt their Civil rights are being trampled upon.
LePage criticized what Mills described as a heavy-handed response to the pandemic, and has repeatedly sought to link him to Biden.
“We have never seen so many destructive public policies at the same time,” Lepage told fellow Republicans.
At his party convention, Mills spoke of his financial management and said of LePage, “We will not hold back.”
“We recorded a historic budget surplus because of good management,” Mills said. “We rejected the tax increase on Maine people and instead offered tax relief, including income tax cuts, for retirees.”
This campaign holds historical significance. Mills is the state’s first female governor, and LePage’s victory would make her the longest-serving governor of Maine.
The Maine constitution prohibits a governor from seeking a third consecutive term, but a two-term candidate can run again after skipping a cycle. The last candidate to attempt this, Democrat Joe Brennan, failed to win a third term in elections in 1990 and 1994.
According to campaign financial disclosures, so far, Mills is growing LePage more than 2-to-1, collecting $3.2 million compared to the roughly $1.5 million raised for LePage.
This year, unlike his previous two campaigns, LePage won’t be helped by big spending spoilers to snatch the Democratic nominee’s votes. Lepage did not win the majority of votes in his successful 2010 and 2014 campaigns, when he ran against candidates that included independent Eliot Cutler, who won nearly 36 percent of the vote in 2010 and more than 8 percent of the vote in 2014.
The only independent candidate in this year’s election is Sam Hunkler, a physician and political newcomer who has a spending limit of $5,000.