By DAVID SHARP
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Paul LePage, the Republican whose two terms as Maine’s governor were dominated by his offensive rhetoric and combative leadership, is seeking a political comeback.
With no opposition, LePage coasted to the Republican nomination for governor on Tuesday, setting up a fierce general election campaign against Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills. The race is among just a handful of competitive governor’s contests in this year’s midterm elections.
The matchup revives a rivalry between LePage and Mills that dates 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 a boiling point over then-President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries. LePage had to pay to use outside counsel.
But this time, they are facing off in a dramatically different political climate.
LePage moved to Florida after leaving office in 2019 but returned a year later and decided to mount a third campaign. He has the full backing of the Republican Party, which has allowed him to focus his energy and financial resources on the general election. Mills, for her part, is seeking reelection in a difficult year for Democrats, weighed down by President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and widespread frustration with the party’s management of inflation and gas prices.
The campaign is emerging as a barometer of whether voters this year will be motivated by economic anxiety or political civility.
LePage used to be fond of calling himself “Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” and he retains a solid following among conservatives. A former city councilor and mayor in Waterville, he was narrowly elected governor in 2010 in a five-way race.
He won plaudits during his tenure for advancing conservative policies, including lowering the tax burden and shrinking Maine’s welfare rolls by tightening eligibility requirements and capping the length of some benefits.
But his policy agenda was often overshadowed by his penchant to offend. During a time of rising animosity toward the media, he joked that he wanted to bomb a newspaper. He told the Portland chapter of the NAACP to “kiss my butt” and dismissed the dangers of an industrial chemical by saying the “worst case is some women may have little beards.” He was considered one of the nation’s most vulnerable governors when he ran for reelection in 2014.
David Capuano, a Brunswick resident who’s not enrolled in either party, said he’s in the camp of voters who believe LePage should go away.
“This guy is a mini-Donald Trump,” Capuano said. “The man is a bully and a loudmouth. I don’t like bullies.”
Ray Richardson, a Republican and radio talk show host at WLOB in Portland, said people remember that LePage did some good things during his eight years. He said LePage is “laser-focused” on addressing new problems.
“He’s a known quantity. We were enduring good times 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 LePage had refused to do. She borrowed a Republican idea to return the bulk of a $1.2 billion budget surplus to taxpayers in the form of $850 inflationary relief checks. In the early days of 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 were being trampled.
LePage criticized what he described as Mills’ heavy-handed response to the pandemic, and he has repeatedly sought to link her to Biden.
“Never have we witnessed so many destructive public policies all at one time,” LePage told fellow Republicans.
At her party convention, Mills touted her fiscal stewardship and said of LePage, “We won’t go back.”
“We recorded historic budget surpluses because of good management,” Mills said. “We rejected tax increases on Maine people and instead delivered tax relief, including an income tax cut for retirees.”
The campaign carries historic significance. Mills is the state’s first female governor, and a LePage win would make him Maine’s longest-serving governor.
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 that, Democrat Joe Brennan, failed to win a third term in elections in 1990 and 1994.
So far, Mills is outraising LePage more than 2-to-1, collecting $3.2 million compared to the nearly $1.5 million raised for LePage, according to campaign financial disclosures.
This year, unlike his last two campaigns, LePage won’t have the help of a big-spending spoiler to siphon votes from the Democratic candidate. LePage didn’t win a majority of the vote in his successful 2010 and 2014 campaigns when he ran against candidates who included independent Eliot Cutler, who won nearly 36% of the vote in 2010 and over 8% 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.
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