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What $1 Billion In Pandemic Aid Could Mean For Janet Mills' Reelection Chances

Gov. Janet Mills attends a news conference in Portland, Maine, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Gov. Janet Mills attends a news conference in Portland, Maine, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills this week rolled out her proposal to spend $1.3 billion in federal relief money, a plan that could bolster her reelection chances if it works and if she can convince the Legislature to go along with it.

Lawmakers were uncharacteristically quiet after the governor released her plan, a three-part strategy that pumps federal funds into immediate COVID relief programs, longer-term economic investments and infrastructure spending. Overall, the proposal dovetails with the governor’s 10-year economic plan that she released three months before the pandemic began last year, but largely viewed as aspirational because of a lack of funding.

The slug of federal money changes the viability of the 10-year plan. Legislative Democrats control the Maine House and Senate, which means Mills’ proposal, or at least elements of it, could come to fruition. However, Democrats have a range of differing priorities and will no doubt see the influx of federal money as a chance to finally fund them.

Republicans may also want a voice in the negotiations, but their leverage will be greatly diminished unless Mills and the Democrats decide that the federal funding must be pumped into the Maine economy immediately — and thus requiring Republican votes — instead of later this year.

Mills said during her press conference on Tuesday that her goal was to spend the money quickly.

“The purpose of this funding from the Congress' point of view and the president's point of view is to get funds into circulation, pick up the economy now,” she said. “We want to see these investments happen as soon as possible.”

Democrats already signaled a willingness to go at it alone when they passed a baseline budget in March instead of the more recent trend of waiting until the very end of the fiscal year. They framed the flexing of their majority as an effort to avoid the brinkmanship that nearly scuttled a supplemental spending plan earlier this year and also resulted in a government shutdown in 2017.

While Republican lawmakers have expressed enthusiasm to spend some of the federal money on initiatives like broadband expansion, there are questions about their willingness to sign onto a $1 billion spending package given that their counterparts in Congress unanimously voted against the bill that made the local money possible, the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan.

Additionally, Mills is expected to run for reelection next year. Her chances for a second term would undoubtedly improve with a swift and robust economic recovery. The chances for that recovery still hinge on the Mills administration’s COVID vaccination plan and outrunning virus variants and infections, but Maine is among the nation’s leaders in vaccination rates, remaining business operating restrictions are lifting and the prospects of a tourism boom are brightening.

The influx of federal money could keep the economy trending in the right direction, while also helping the thousands of Mainers and businesses still trying to climb out of the COVID funk. Mills and the Legislature now need to agree on a way to spend it.

LePage’s spring fling

For weeks, allies of former Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Republican Party have been teasing his speculative bid to run against Mills next year. His advisor-run political organization, Maine People Before Politics, is backing the fishing industry’s opposition to the Mills administration’s plan for an offshore wind demonstration project off Monhegan Island. The Republican Governors Association, which played a significant role in helping him win two terms as governor, in 2010 and 2014, is also hyping the dispute.

LePage, for his part, has been talking about running against Mills since before he even left office in 2018.

The former governor has recently kept a relatively low profile, but later this month, he’s expected to make a public appearance at the Waldo County GOP “spring fling.”

According to the midcoast weekly Village Soup, LePage will be the featured speaker at the Wentworth Event Center in Belfast on May 21.

The Waldo County GOP is the same county committee that censured former Republican state Sen. Roger Katz and former Senate President Kevin Raye for supporting President Joe Biden last year.

It was also involved in the failed attempt to censure Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who voted to convict former President Donald Trump on impeachment charges that he incited the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

At the time, Waldo County GOP chairwoman Katrina Smith told the Bangor Daily News that her members wanted a “message sent” to Collins that her conviction vote was not acceptable.

LePage never publicly commented on the Collins-Maine GOP dispute, but he was among many Maine Republicans who had asserted without evidence that the election was stolen from Trump, a belief held by the Capitol rioters who hoped to overturn the election results.

Former Gov. Paul LePage, waves before leaving a rally against the executive orders by Gov. Janet Mills to keep some Maine businesses closed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Former Gov. Paul LePage, waves before leaving a rally against the executive orders by Gov. Janet Mills to keep some Maine businesses closed to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

During the insurrection, LePage released a statement saying he didn’t support the violence, telling rioters to “go home.”

The rioters did go home, although many are now facing the prospect of incarceration. However, the failed insurrection, and the election fraud claims that inspired it, are not going away as a political issue just yet.

Polls continue to show that a majority of Republican voters believe the election was stolen from Trump, a belief at odds with the majority view of independent and Democratic voters. At the same time, elected Republicans who continue to speak out against the stolen election conspiracy are getting punished by Trump supporters. That includes U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, who is poised to lose her leadership spot in the House Republican conference for blasting the former president and his ongoing fraud claims.

Cheney’s potential ouster may not seem connected to the electoral fortunes of Republicans, including LePage, who might run in next year’s midterms. But some political analysts are warning that it could be. That’s because loyalty to Trump continues to be a litmus test for many Republicans, some of whom are actively seeking his endorsement for 2022.

Democrats, who repeatedly used Trump as a base motivator in 2018 and 2020, are reportedly thrilled.

LePage was Trump’s honorary campaign chairman in Maine last year. He could arguably afford to be less obsequious toward Trump than many of his GOP colleagues because of his oft-publicized alliance with the former president, not to mention their similar rhetorical and governing style.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Maine GOP has already taken steps to clear a path for LePage to run without facing a well-financed primary challenger.

Democrats fearing a third LePage term might be inclined to continually link him to Trump and a stolen election narrative that’s primarily endorsed by GOP voters and viewed as a dangerous conspiracy by most everyone else.

Will it work? Unclear.

After all, Democrats repeatedly attempted to do the same to Collins. It was an effort of questionable efficacy, in part because of Trump’s strength in the 2nd Congressional District and also because Collins managed to keep herself separated from the former president.

That, of course, was before the insurrection, an act that shook many Americans. Its utility as an election issue next year remains to be seen, but Democrats wary of a third LePage term could be poised to try it.

Anti-vax twofer

The spotlight of anti-vaccination disinformation fell on Maine last week when the Maine Sunday Telegram profiled Yarmouth obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Christiane Northrup, whose assertions about the dangers of the COVID-19 vaccines have won her an audience among vaccine skeptics, conservative hardliners and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy.

Northup’s claims are bizarre; last year she stated in a widely circulated video that the COVID vaccines would change people’s DNA and load people’s bodies with tiny robots equipped with 5G antennas that would relay biometric data to ... someone.

“Once those nanoparticles go in, there’s no detoxing from them, there’s no getting them out of there,” Northrup said. “They combine with your DNA and you are suddenly programmable, and with the proposed 5G networks the body would be an antenna where you could be controlled from outside of yourself.”

Northrup isn’t the only one spreading such evidence-free claims in Maine and elsewhere. Last week, author Naomi Wolf attended a Five Freedoms Rally in Augusta. Like Northrup, Wolf has become a darling of the anti-vaccination movement, and more recently, an ally of conservatives arguing against COVID restrictions, masks and so-called COVID passports for the vaccinated.

On the day of the rally, Wolf was escorted into the State House with a cameraman by Republican state Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, of Fairfield. According to Rudnicki’s Facebook page, the trio were told to go to the House Republican office by Capitol Police, but at some point decided to get an unscheduled meeting with the governor.

They were asked to leave and escorted out of the building.

Wolf’s vaccine rhetoric sounds a lot like Northrup’s. In February she tweeted that two of the COVID vaccines use a technology that essentially acts as a software platform “that can receive uploads.” She also claimed that she overheard an Apple employee in a Manhattan restaurant describe a top-secret project that uses vaccines to deliver technology that will allow people to travel back in time.

Experts who track disinformation have repeatedly debunked such wild claims, but they remain pervasive in social media. While Northrup was recently banned by Instagram, her Twitter account is active, as is Wolf’s. Both have active pages on Facebook, which owns Instagram.

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Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.