Paul LePage, the Republican governor of Maine whose two terms were defined by his offensive rhetoric and combative leadership, is attempting a political comeback.
With no opposition, LePage will easily win the Republican nomination for governor on Tuesday, paving the way for a bruising general election battle with Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills. The race is one of only a few competitive governor’s races in this year’s midterm elections.
The matchup reignites a feud between LePage and Mills dating back to when he was governor and she was attorney general. LePage sued Mills for refusing to defend his administration during a series of political squabbles sparked by then-President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries. LePage had to pay to use outside counsel.
This time, however, they are competing in a vastly different political environment.
After leaving office in 2019, LePage relocated to Florida, but returned a year later and decided to run for a third time. He has the full support of the Republican Party, allowing him to concentrate his energy and financial resources on the general election. Mills, for her part, is running for reelection in a difficult year for Democrats, with President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and widespread dissatisfaction with the party’s handling of inflation and gas prices.
The campaign is emerging as a predictor of whether voters will be motivated by economic anxiety or political civility this year. LePage likes to refer to himself as “Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” and he has a strong following among conservatives. He was elected governor in a five-way race in 2010 after serving as a city councilor and mayor in Waterville.
During his tenure, he received praise for advancing conservative policies such as lowering the tax burden and shrinking Maine’s welfare rolls by tightening eligibility requirements and limiting the length of some benefits.
However, his policy agenda was frequently overshadowed by his proclivity to offend. During a period of growing hostility toward the media, he joked about bombing a newspaper. He told the Portland NAACP chapter to “kiss my butt” and dismissed the dangers of an industrial chemical by saying that the “worst case scenario is some women may have little beards.” When he ran for reelection in 2014, he was regarded as one of the country’s most vulnerable governors.
David Capuano, a Brunswick resident who is not affiliated with either party, said he is among those who believe LePage should resign.
People remember LePage doing some good things during his eight years in office, according to Ray Richardson, a Republican and radio talk show host at WLOB in Portland. He described LePage as “laser-focused” on addressing new issues.
When Mills took office in 2019, her first act was to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, which LePage had refused to do. She borrowed a Republican idea to give taxpayers the lion’s share of a $1.2 billion budget surplus in the form of $850 inflationary relief checks. She issued an executive order requiring residents to wear masks in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she later implemented a vaccine mandate for health care workers, infuriating conservatives who felt their civil rights were being violated.
The Maine Constitution prohibits a governor from running for a third consecutive term, but a two-term candidate can run again after a cycle break. The last candidate to try, Democrat Joe Brennan, failed to win a third term in 1990 and 1994.
According to campaign financial disclosures, Mills has outraised LePage more than 2-to-1, raising $3.2 million to LePage’s nearly $1.5 million.
Unlike in his previous two campaigns, LePage will not have the assistance of a high-spending spoiler to siphon votes from the Democratic candidate this year. LePage did not receive a majority of the vote in his successful 2010 and 2014 campaigns, when he faced candidates such as independent Eliot Cutler, who received nearly 36 percent of the vote in 2010 and more than 8 percent in 2014.
The only independent running in this year’s election is Sam Hunkler, a physician and political newcomer who has a self-imposed spending cap of $5,000.