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Ready Or Not, Maine's Race For Governor Is Coming

Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty
Former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, marches in the State of Maine Bicentennial Parade, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Lewiston, Maine.

In this week’s newsletter: Sketching the battleground for the gubernatorial race; Gov. Mills eyes ways to fight lobster regulations; Vaccinated Dem leaders hit with COVID; clock ticking on redistricting panel; Maine’s tobacco tax debate foreshadows the one in Congress.

Maine voters are about to endure a grueling gubernatorial campaign that one analyst projects will shatter spending records for such contests here, an anticipated $75 million blitz that will likely fall well short of last year’s $200 million U.S. Senate race, but still unleash an equally numbing torrent of ads on television, radio and digital spaces.

The slog to Nov. 8, 2022, continues next Wednesday, when former Republican Gov. Paul LePage “officially” launches his bid for a historic third term at an indoor rally at the Augusta Civic Center. Technically LePage officially launched his campaign in July, when he set up a campaign committee to fundraise, but next week he’s giving a speech — which will inevitably be used to fundraise some more.


His opponent and rival, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, has yet to formally announce her reelection bid, but her informal campaign has been fundraising like crazy, sending roughly 30 appeals for cash to supporters since July with urgent subject lines like “we need to work fast,” “no time to waste” and “we can’t go back.”

The money will have an outsize influence on the race, just as it did in the 2020 U.S. Senate contest. National issues — the pandemic, partisan-instigated culture wars, the economy, abortion — will also color the debates and potentially tip the outcome, just as they did when LePage rode an anti-President Barack Obama tide to reelection in the 2014 midterm election.

Once again, LePage is hoping for an assist from midterm election trends that historically benefit the party out of power in the White House. However, this time he’s confronting Maine history: Incumbent governors don’t lose here. Not since 1966, anyway.

The midterm advantage is often attributed to anger and apathy — anger among the party out of power, apathy among the one that’s in control.

LePage, however, could have a mitigating effect on that dynamic. He's a base motivator, not only for Republicans, but Democrats, too. His truculent conduct is well-known and, besides, a concise summary of it tends to understate just how jarring it was, not to mention subversive to his stated purpose for wanting the job: governing.

That’s probably why LePage’s allies are framing his return from Florida as someone who has become more policy focused, more mellow and also inclined to spontaneously dance with his wife, Ann LePage.

Democratic party activists don’t buy this rebranding effort, but even if it is legitimate, LePage has other problems to overcome. His party continues to pledge fealty to a one-term president who was impeached for provoking an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

LePage has closely identified with the former president, once saying, “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”

That alignment is a plus among the Republican base, but in Maine, which convincingly chose President Joe Biden last year, it could be a problem. Creating distance between LePage and the former president won’t be easy. LePage was Trump’s state campaign chairman. In November he also floated the idea that voter fraud thwarted Trump’s reelection, a belief that polls show is shared by a majority of GOP voters.

Then there’s the pandemic.

LePage has repeatedly signaled that he, like other Republicans, will campaign against restrictions designed to curb the spread of the virus. Last year, in an appearance with Trump, he seconded the president’s assertion that Mills was acting like a dictator.

Recent polling suggests most Mainers remain supportive of Mills’ pandemic response and they also appear supportive of mask and vaccine requirements in certain cases.

Meanwhile, LePage has joined others in the GOP by staking out a personal freedom stance on vaccines that’s best exemplified by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who supports the COVID vaccines, but not mandating them. However, this week he demonstrated how shaky that position is when an aggrieved worker he invited to a press conference started parroting anti-vax disinformation that’s repeatedly platformed by conservative talk radio hosts, Fox News personalities and Facebook memes that offer the mirage of informational clarity in real or self-imposed news deserts.

Some Maine Republicans have experienced similar pitfalls while attempting to draft off the mandate backlash.

There’s also a question that will likely be on the mind of Maine voters, even if it’s not a question asked in recent polls: How would LePage have handled the pandemic?

The answer, while arguably theoretical, might be Mills’ best weapon against her old nemesis.

That was the case in California this week when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom demolished a recall attempt despite frustrating business owners and getting caught red-handed last year dining close-quartered, maskless and pre-vaccine at a fancy restaurant.

Newsom rousted Democratic voters out of their nests of apathy and ambivalence by making them imagine their pandemic lives under the leadership of his far-right replacement, Larry Elder.

It might be tempting to envision California as a kind of bellwether for other Democratic governors up for reelection, including Mills.

It’s not a clean comparison, though. California’s electorate skews far more Democrat than Maine (46% of California registered voters are Democrats versus 35.6% here).

Virginia’s race for governor this year might be a better indicator. The pandemic is a leading issue. The Virginia electorate, like Maine, is purple, skewing more Democratic during the Trump presidency.

The race there is close -- close enough that President Biden’s slumping approval with independent voters could be a problem for Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe.

The pandemic arguably put Biden in the White House. But despite a strong start and rapid vaccine deployment, the delta variant of the virus is rampaging and endangering the president’s economic recovery agenda.

Mills has largely followed the Biden administration’s lead during the pandemic. She has also been less visible in recent weeks. Instead, the once-shelved case and hospitalization count briefings are led by her charismatic CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah, who now has a candy bar named after him and who gets love from Diet Coke’s Twitter account.

Meanwhile, the pandemic seems as bad as it’s ever been. One in 500 Americans have now died because of it.

The death rate is horrific, in part because many of the deaths were preventable. As Bangor Daily News reporter Jessica Piper noted this week, Maine’s death rate is 1 in 1,370 people. If the U.S. matched that rate, about 425,000 Americans who died during the pandemic would be alive.

It’s a compelling statistic and one that Mills might well run on if the state can weather the delta surge.

For now, however, the governor is keeping a low profile. The date of her reelection announcement, seemingly imminent over the summer, is unclear.

LePage, whose unpredictability is catnip for press attention, isn’t expected to meander out of the starting blocks.

Neither is the campaign.

Mills tries to preempt stricter lobstering rules

The Mills administration announced this week that it's pursuing several actions to contest recently released lobstering restrictions designed to protect endangered right whales.

While administration officials say it’s too soon to announce how it might contest those rules, it’s also intervening in a lawsuit that officials say could be more devastating to the industry.

Marine Resources chief Patrick Keliher told Maine Public this week that the governor is hiring private attorneys to help fight a lawsuit in the U.S. D.C. Circuit Court brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups. The groups are challenging the data used by the federal government to issue lobstering regulations to protect right whales.

Keliher says prevailing in that lawsuit won't undo the new federal lobstering regulations that effectively close off traditional lobstering for 950 square miles of the Gulf of Maine from October through January.

But he says it will prevent potentially stricter regulations or an outright closure in some areas.

"Our belief is that it could be much more draconian if there was a [court] remedy that they pushed for that is going to be much, much worse than what just happened with this rule," he said.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the new federal rules don't go far enough and that the Fisheries Service assessment of how lobster gear affects right whales fails to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Keliher says the Mills administration is also working with state's congressional delegation to find ways to mitigate impacts on the industry.

Keliher hinted that the administration is contemplating additional actions — potentially legal ones — but that it's too soon to know if any are viable. That might include challenging the same biological opinion that federal regulators used to develop the new lobstering rules.

The Office of Attorney General has authorized the hiring of private attorneys at an initial cost of $230,000.

The issue is an important one for the industry and the right whales, of which there are only 360 or so left on the planet. It’s also important politically for Mills, who was already under fire from Maine’s iconic industry for supporting offshore wind development off Monhegan Island.

Breakthrough cases

The top two Democratic leaders in the Maine Senate this week tested positive for COVID-19.

In the span of about 18 hours, Senate President Troy Jackson, of Allagash, and majority leader Eloise Vitelli, of Arrowsic, announced that they had tested positive for the disease.

Both Jackson and Vitelli say they are vaccinated, which health experts say may not prevent infection but often protects against severe symptoms and hospitalization.

The circumstances of how both leaders contracted the disease are not yet known, and neither are the number of close contacts Jackson and Vitelli say they have notified.

A spokeswoman in Jackson's office did not respond to a request for comment.

During Wednesday’s Maine Center for Disease Control briefing, director Dr. Nirav Shah was asked if his agency is investigating a potential outbreak or if Vitelli and Jackson’s cases were connected epidemiologically. He declined to comment.

In separate statements, Jackson and Vitelli said they had taken recommended precautions. Both urged Mainers to get vaccinated.

“We are taking this very seriously and doing our part to protect the health and safety of others,” Jackson said in a statement. “I would encourage others who aren’t vaccinated to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their families and their loved ones. The only way we are going to get through this pandemic is if we look out for each other and remain vigilant.”

Redistricting work picks up steam

The bipartisan panel drawing new maps for congressional and legislative districts will hold a public meeting Monday to discuss proposals from Democrats and Republicans, both of which unveiled drafts as the Pulse was in production Thursday evening.

The unveiling by the parties can often be a bit performative rather than useful for informing what the ultimate maps will look like. However, both sides don’t have a lot of time to get cute.

Delays in the U.S. Census forced Maine’s reapportionment commission to request an extension to send consensus maps to the Legislature for approval. The law court gave the panel 45 days, or until Sept. 27, to do that.

That means the panel will have 10 days from Monday’s hearing to get the job done.

Been there, done that

As Democrats in Congress seek ways to pay for the Biden administration’s sweeping $3.5 trillion Build Back Better proposal, they’re reportedly taking a hard look at increasing excise taxes on tobacco products.

Republicans have declared such a proposal a tax increase on low- and middle-income Americans, as well as a violation of President Joe Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on anyone but the wealthy.

The White House disagreed, countering that increasing excise taxes affects tobacco companies directly and therefore is not taxing Americans’ income.

A similar debate took place in Maine two years ago when Democrats passed a bill that doubled Maine’s tobacco tax from 20% to 43% and broadened the affected products to include e-cigarettes and vaping devices.

The bill was signed by Mills, who also had made a pledge not to raise taxes on Mainers’ income.

The debate over whether to jack up tobacco excise taxes is doozy. While the excise taxes are levied on tobacco companies, the companies often pass on the taxes to customers by way of higher product prices. Those higher prices tend to hit middle- and lower-income people the hardest because they’re the ones most likely to use tobacco, according to federal data.

But advocates for raising those taxes argue that doing so can also change behavior and prompt some users to quit.

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