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Politics

Why Mills Vs. LePage Won’t Be Defined By Their Rivalry

Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Former Gov. Paul LePage, sitting in a Lexus SC 430, talks to supporters at 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. LePage, now a resident of Florida, stayed in his car parked near the rally. A speaker at the event said the former governor was quarantining.

In this week’s newsletter: Why Mills vs. LePage won’t just be a battle of divergent personalities; LePage’s media hoovering; Mills gathers dollars as supporters await official launch; redistricting efforts delayed.

The 2022 election matchup that has long been teased and analyzed is all but certain.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who has been raising money for reelection but has not formally announced her candidacy, will face her old nemesis, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage next year.

Three other candidates have emerged. A fourth is thinking about it. For now, the spotlight is firmly set on Mills and LePage, who frequently clashed when she was state attorney general and he was governor. Given their history, the race seems destined to be framed as a battle of divergent personalities - the pugnacious LePage versus the unobtrusive, but no less resolute, incumbent.

But it’s more complicated than that.

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The contest could signal voters’ appetite for the knavery and divisive conduct that LePage embraced during his two terms and later touted when he declared himself as the prototype for former President Donald Trump. It’s no wonder that the Boston Globe this week framed his comeback bid as a potential harbinger for the viability of Trump’s anticipated return in 2024.

According to the Bangor Daily News, the Republican’s allies have characterizing his campaign for a third term as LePage 2.0, “a calmer and issue-focused iteration” of the governor who once made national news after he left a profanity-laden voicemail for a state lawmaker and later fantasized about challenging him to a pistol-wielding duel.

We’ll see.

LePage’s impolitic past may well complicate his attempt to pull off what no gubernatorial candidate has done in 55 years: defeat a sitting governor.

But the present is also revealing a potential problem for Mills. Her recent vetoes of several Democratic-backed bills have dismayed some of her allies. While Democratic leaders like House Speaker Ryan Fecteau have attempted to allay those concerns, some progressive activists are worried that the centrist Mills hasn’t done enough to advance party priorities.

They also worry that failing to energize activists will yield a less engaged base when Democrats will be confronting historic headwinds.

Since 1946, the average midterm loss for the president's party is 25 congressional seats. And over the years, statewide races -- including the 2010 and 2014 contests that LePage won -- have become increasingly nationalized.

Em Burnett, former campaign manager for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Betsy Sweet and Portland Mayor Kate Snyder, says progressive activists could be critical to Mills’ reelection bid. And some of them are unhappy.

“All of these bills that were vetoed, they're not just singular bills. They are backed by organizers, volunteers, people who directly experienced a problem and brought it to Augusta to fix it,” said Burnett, who cited Mills’ vetoing a bill that would have shuttered the youth detention center Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland as just one example. “It is really disheartening. And in the context of having some of the largest protests the state has ever seen for Black Lives Matter, and then having the governor clearly doing the performative actions -- making Juneteeth a state holiday but not backing that up with meaningful change ... It’s hard to imagine those same people are going to go out and support someone when we don't know if she's actually got our back.”

It’s possible that LePage, like Trump, will do plenty to energize the Democratic base next year. But Burnett says it’s a mistake to think the Republican’s past conduct and right-wing policy initiatives will do all the heavy lifting for Mills.

The same goes for leaning too heavily on the governor’s handling of the pandemic.

“We have an older population and there's a lot of people who respect her COVID response … and that might just win,” Burnett said. “But it makes me nervous to see how energized and kind of how violent the right is getting. When you look at the landscape, the people you want to be most fired up are not going to be fired up. So that's a little worrying because, yeah, I don't want to see Paul LePage win again.”

Mills has demonstrated that the center lane can be a winning one in Maine.

Her victory in 2018 marked the first time a non-incumbent gubernatorial candidate won an outright majority since Democrat Ken Curtis beat Republican Gov. John Reed 55 year ago. That was also the last time an incumbent Maine governor was defeated.

Media magnet

Throughout his eight years in office, and long after that, LePage established himself as the undisputed champion of media intrigue.

He’s also admitted to exploiting it. In 2017 he declared on Portland radio station WGAN that he fabricates stories so that the press will chase them.

His approach to the press, which he has labeled “vile,” “useless,” and “inaccurate,” is a challenge that is not unlike the one Trump posed for the White House press corps, which spent four sleepless years trying to decipher the meaning and implications of the president’s predawn tweets while also drawing “enemy of the people” insults that some of his followers came to believe as fact.

Time will tell if LePage has a different approach this time around.

For now, his campaign is promising a quiet summer with most of the former governor’s activity remaining private until later this fall.

Mills’ launch imminent?

Mills has yet to formally announce her candidacy, but her campaign has been increasing its fundraising activity in recent weeks.

A fundraising pitch to supporters in mid-June suggested that a kickoff is imminent, but there’s been no official word from the Mills camp. So far, it’s released just one statement, a short, unattributed missive responding to LePage’s announcement on Monday.

That's in contrast to LePage’s campaign, which issued a 1,500-word release mostly containing personal and political background.

The attention from the media was also a notably different. LePage, who has talked about challenging Mills since before he left office in 2018, has received a bonanza of coverage over the past week; first putting a countdown clock on his website, then for filing as a candidate committee with the Maine Ethics Commission, and later for releasing a statement on Monday.

Redistricting delayed

The state commission charged with redrawing Maine's legislative and congressional districts is hoping that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will give it more time so redistricting efforts can begin later this summer.

The Apportionment Commission meets every 10 years to redraw legislative and congressional districts, but its work this year has been hampered by delays in U.S. Census population data.

The federal government has indicated that the data will arrive in mid-August, but the apportionment commission has already missed a constitutional deadline to send reconfigured district maps to the Legislature for approval.

In May, it petitioned Maine's law court for an extension, arguing it needs granular population data to fairly and accurately redraw maps that effectively determine the constituencies — and electoral battlegrounds — for legislative and congressional representatives.

In some states the redistricting process is highly partisan, but Maine is one of several that uses a bipartisan commission to redraw the maps, and if that fails, leaves the process to the law court.

If the law court approves of the extension, the commission could complete its work later this fall.

The Apportionment Commission this week agreed to postpone most of its work until it receives approval from the law court.

The 15-member commission, made up of current and former state legislators and partisan operators, has asked the court to give it 45 days after receiving the Census data to redraw the district maps and another 10 days for the Legislature to vote on them.

Approval of the new redistricting requires two-thirds support by the Legislature. Failing to meet that threshold would send the redistricting process to the law court.

Preliminary Census data was released earlier this year and it confirmed that Maine would retain two congressional districts.

However, adjustments to the congressional district maps might be needed to account for population losses in the 2nd District and gains in the 1st - and to ensure that an even number of residents are represented in both.

A similar issue confronted the Apportionment Commission in 2011 when partisans battled over which towns in Kennebec County should be included in the 1st Congressional and the 2nd.

As a result, the Legislature approved congressional maps that moved Waterville and Winslow from the 2nd District to the 1st, while Albion, Belgrade, Gardiner, Monmouth, Mount Vernon, Randolph, Rome, Sidney, Unity Township, Vienna and West Gardiner moved from the 1st to the 2nd.

The Legislature approved redrawn legislative districts in 2013.

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