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Once At Odds, Paul LePage And Susan Collins Find Reciprocity

A minutelong pre-recorded video of Susan Collins plays at the August Civic Center, where two-term former Maine Gov. Paul LePage held a rally announcing a bid for his third term on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.
Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
A minutelong pre-recorded video of Susan Collins plays at the August Civic Center, where two-term former Maine Gov. Paul LePage held a rally announcing a bid for his third term on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

In this week’s newsletter: Tracing the evolution of the Collins-LePage alliance; Collins won’t back abortion rights bill; a potential third party candidate in the gubernatorial race; ranked-choice backers give foreign electioneering ban an early boost.

The words “Susan Collins” had barely left the emcee’s mouth before the boos and jeers started.

“Traitor!” some hissed.

“Democrat!” others shouted.

The sound engineer quickly cut the stage microphone to stop the crowd noise from bleeding into the Augusta Civic Center audio system and potentially drown out what was billed as a special endorsement of former Gov. Paul LePage’s third gubernatorial bid.

“As Maine recovers from the pandemic, Paul is the best candidate to grow our economy again,” Collins said during the minutelong pre-recorded video at LePage’s campaign launch rally Wednesday. “Paul is a job creator. That’s his background. He’s done it before and he will do it again.”

It was an oddly dissonant scene — Collins’ cheerful tone and the ranckled hecklers. So was the reaction as the endorsement news spread among liberal Twitter users, many of whom had long ago declared Collins a lost cause because, as they saw it, she had repeatedly failed to stand up to former President Donald Trump.

“It’s hard to describe how utterly awful this is,” tweeted Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

“Susan Collins reminds us she is hardly a moderate,” declared a headline in New York Magazine.

The reaction makes some sense to anyone who has casually followed the careers of Maine’s top two Republican heavyweights. After all, Collins’ career is defined by her moderate brand. LePage, whose bellicosity during his two terms as governor made him a self-described prototype for the Donald Trump presidency, is something else entirely.

But Collins’ endorsement of LePage — who once declared Collins’ career “done in Maine” after she announced in 2016 she wouldn’t vote for Trump — shouldn’t have been a shock.

Not only did Collins telegraph her LePage endorsement to the Bangor Daily News in June, she’s worked on his behalf before. Twice actually.

“I very much believe in the big tent philosophy of the Republican Party,” she said during a 2014 speech in Bangor that was billed as a Republican unity event to boost her and LePage’s reelection bids. “There’s room for differing views.”

Of course, LePage hasn’t always been as accommodating of Collins’ way of doing things.

“I am not a Susan Collins fan. That’s not the kind of Republican I am,” LePage told Portland radio station WGAN in 2016, shortly after Collins announced she would not endorse Trump.

Even before Trump, the tension between LePage and Collins simmered, mostly in private.

Then-Gov. LePage stewed in 2013 when he failed to convince Collins to lobby GOP lawmakers to defeat Medicaid expansion in the Legislature.

Irritation among LePage’s team intensified between 2015 and 2017, when the governor increasingly clashed with state Senate Republicans — many advised by former Collins’ staffers — over state tax and budget issues. At one point, LePage’s team, working outside of his administration, deployed robocalls in the GOP senators’ districts, targeting them the same way he would Democrats and asserting that the two sides were working together and against him.

The conflict between the two continued to escalate early in the Trump presidency. In 2017, the Trump administration called in LePage to help convince Collins to support a GOP repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It didn’t work. Lance Dutson, a former Collins campaign staffer, then used a blog hosted by the Bangor Daily News to explain the folly of LePage even trying.

Around the same time, reports surfaced of LePage telling supporters to unite against a prospective 2018 gubernatorial bid by Collins.

Collins ultimately decided against running for governor and instead sought a fifth term in the U.S. Senate.

At the time, the spat between Collins and LePage seemed like a microcosm of the larger battle between waning establishment Republicans and the assurgent pro-Trump faction.

And maybe it was.

But the landscape changed in 2020. Collins, facing an all out blitz by Democrats to derail her reelection, saw her once lofty popularity dip as pro- and anti-Trump forces routinely evicerated her perceived lack of willingness to support or oppose him.

Then LePage, Trump’s Maine campaign chairman, announced he was endorsing her, a move that arguably helped shore up Collins’ right flank. She convincingly defeated Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, clobbering her in the 2nd Congressional District and holding her down in Democratic strongholds with the help of split-ticket voters.

However, it wasn’t long before Collins was in trouble again with the pro-LePage, pro-Trump faction. Collins’ vote to convict Trump on an impeachment article that charged him with stoking the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol prompted a censure movement among Maine GOP activists who were already exiling noncompliant Republicans.

LePage, who could have easily spurred the censure movement with a single tweet or statement, was oddly silent — at least publicly.

Collins later beat the late-March censure vote by a 2-to-1 margin.

A few months later, LePage’s allies intensified the chatter about his bid for a third term. His supporters pitched a kinder, gentler LePage — “LePage 2.0” — to the BDN. The report included a statement from Collins’ spokeswoman saying that if LePage ran again, the senator would support him.

LePage had backed Collins when she needed him. Now, with a rebranding effort underway to convince independent Maine voters that a third LePage term won’t look like the previous two, he apparently needs her.

Whether his diehard supporters like it or not.

Collins won’t back abortion rights bill

As if Collins wasn’t already sufficiently riling Democrats.

This week she announced that she won’t support a bill designed to beat back state-led attempts to severely limit abortion by essentially guaranteeing rights to the procedure regardless of state law.

The proposal, the Women’s Health Protection Act, is the Democrats’ response to recent state laws passed in Texas and Mississippi that would drastically limit access to the procedure.

But Collins, who identifies as pro-choice, says the bill goes too far and potentially strips states of their rights to regulate abortion access.

“I support codifying Roe (vs. Wade),” Collins told the Los Angeles Times. “Unfortunately, the bill that the House has drafted goes way beyond that.”

Collins’ opposition has further enflamed abortion rights advocates who are already angry at her votes to confirm conservative judges who could undermine Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Collins’ opposition to the bill isn’t its only impediment to passage. Two Democrats, Sens. Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, and Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, are also against the legislation, which means its defeat in the evenly divided Senate is all but certain without the support of Republicans.

Third-party candidate?

Former state Sen. Tom Saviello, of Wilton, continued Wednesday to tease a potential gubernatorial bid as an independent.

Saviello, a former Democrat who more recently served as a Republican, is part of the campaign to derail the Central Maine Power transmission corridor via Question 1 this November.

Speculation about his candidacy followed LePage’s formal candidacy declaration in July, but Saviello made no commitment to run.

On Wednesday he responded to LePage’s kickoff with a statement on Facebook that criticized the former governor and Democratic Maine Gov. Janet Mills for backing the corridor.

“Tonight Paul LePage highlighted the importance of our natural resources, but he ushered the wildly unpopular CMP Corridor through without seeking anything in return for the people of Maine, and when he retired from office, he joined CMP's lobbying team,” Saviello wrote. “Governor Mills negotiated a deal worth pennies to Mainers and billions to foreign corporations. Maine currently has two candidates who have always toed the line for CMP. We deserve a candidate who puts the interests of Mainers first.”

It’s unclear how Saviello’s potential entry in the race could affect the Mills-LePage matchup, but it’s certainly going to create angst among Democrats, who continue to fear that a split in the center-left vote could land LePage a third term.

As an issue, the corridor is uniquely nonpartisan. Recent polls show that Democrats, Republicans and independents continue to disapprove of it, but it’s dicey to assume that voters would back Saviello on that basis alone.

Saviello is well-known in his former district, as well as the State House, but he would need to elevate his profile in a statewide contest. Additionally, he isn’t the only anti-corridor voice out there. Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford, has garnered a lot more media attention for his pithy critiques of the corridor, CMP and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

He has said repeatedly that he has no intention of running for governor.

Ranked-choice backers jumpstart foreign electioneering ban

The campaign seeking to ban electioneering by foreign governments in Maine ballot initiatives is getting early support from donors who backed the 2016 ranked-choice voting referendum and other election reform advocates.

The ballot question committee Protect Maine Elections is working to get the measure on the 2022 ballot, and so far, it's getting significant financial support from John and Mary Palmer, who also gave thousands of dollars to the ranked-choice voting campaign.

The Palmers, who live in Maine, gave Protect Maine Elections a combined $25,000, according to the committee's initial finance report.

Democratic state Rep. Kyle Bailey, of Gorham, led the 2016 ranked-choice campaign and he's also leading Protect Maine Elections, along with state Sen. Bennett.

Bailey says the foreign electioneering issue is drawing interest from a range of supporters, including those behind ranked-choice voting and people concerned about money in politics.

"I think this is a unique issue that brings Democrats, Republicans, independents, Greens, Libertarians together because despite our differences we all agree that our political system isn't working and that money is an issue, but in particular, that foreign governments and their subsidiaries shouldn't be involved in our elections," he said. "Maine elections should be for Maine people."

Protect Maine Elections launched the citizens initiative in August, shortly after Gov. Mills vetoed a similar prohibition, arguing that a foreign electioneering ban would unfairly silence companies owned by foreign governments.

A similar assertion was made by backers of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which erased contribution and spending limits for American corporations.

As it turns out, some of those who are seeking to undo Citizens United are also backing the proposed Maine ban on foreign government electioneering.

Among them is Jeff Clements, president of American Promise, which is seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution to reverse Citizens United.

Clements previously donated to a 2015 campaign that strengthened Maine's Clean Elections program and added transparency requirements to the state's campaign finance laws.

He and Nancy Heselton, of Peaks Island, have donated a combined $25,000 to the Protect Maine Elections committee.

The foreign government electioneering prohibition was prompted by Hydro-Quebec, the Quebec government-owned energy generator that's spent $10 million trying to stop a referendum that could scuttle Central Maine Power's transmission project through western Maine.

The company has been seeking to increase its U.S. energy exports, a goal backed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Hydro-Quebec, which would supply the electricity for the CMP project known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, has called the Maine project the largest sales contract in its history.

However, its spending in the corridor fight has been criticized since 2019, when it began exploiting a loophole in Maine campaign finance laws. State and federal law ban contributions or expenditures on candidate campaigns, but both are silent on ballot measures.

Several states have recently implemented bans on foreign electioneering. Additionally, campaign finance reformers have attempted to curb spending by foreign-owned companies — not just those owned by foreign governments — as a way of limiting corporate spending in elections.

Such an effort was attempted in the Legislature this year, but lawmakers instead settled for a prohibition only on companies with foreign government ownership, such as Hydro-Quebec.

The bill received bipartisan support, but not enough to override the governor's veto.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings.

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