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All signs point to the first head-to-head gubernatorial contest in Maine in 40 years

In this Jan. 2, 2019 file photo, Gov. Janet Mills delivers her inaugural address after taking the oath of office at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Jan. 2, 2019 file photo, Gov. Janet Mills delivers her inaugural address after taking the oath of office at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.

In this week's Pulse: Gearing up for a Mills v. LePage faceoff, tribal gaming bill gets through committee, another debate over debates, other congressional candidates, lowering energy costs, State House flooded, and a programming note.

The odds of a straight head-to-head contest between Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage increased significantly this week after neither candidates’ prospective primary challengers qualified for the June ballot.

There’s still the possibility that an independent or unenrolled candidate could run. However, time is running out for such candidates to submit the 4,000 signatures by June 1 that are needed to qualify for the general election in November.

That’s why all indications point to the first head-to-head gubernatorial contest in Maine in 40 years.

In 2018, Mills became the first woman elected governor in Maine history. She also won an outright majority in a three-way contest as she rode a national wave that allowed Democrats to retake the U.S. House of Representatives while retaining full control of the Maine Legislature.

Mills’ bid for a second term will be a lot tougher. The party out of power in the White House historically has the upper hand in mid-term elections, and those fundamentals can sometimes trickle down to state and local contests that are increasingly nationalized by groups that can spend unlimited cash to shape campaign narratives and influence voters.

Early polls -- and retirements among endangered Democratic members of Congress -- suggest that the GOP could be poised for a wave election rivaling the one that brought LePage to power in 2010 and also resulted in a Republican sweep of the Legislature. The conditions setting up the 2010 red wave are similar to the ones brightening Republican hopes for this year.

Leading the list is the economy.

While unemployment and GDP growth in Maine and the U.S. are back to pre-pandemic levels, inflation remains stubborn and tangibly painful for voters.

That’s why Republican candidates, including LePage, are talking so much about it. It’s also why Democrats, including Mills, are scrambling to address it. Her proposal to send direct payments to Mainers -- potentially up to $750 per eligible person -- is a direct response to inflation.

Whether voters will take direct payments into account when they vote in November is unclear, but Maine Republicans have attempted to blunt the impact by talking about “permanent relief” by way of income tax cuts. The GOP has thus far also managed to keep the income tax push rhetorical, which makes sense given that an actual income tax cut proposal could saddle them with a unique set of political and electoral liabilities.

The income tax vs. direct payment debate is arguably aimed at swing voters feeling the pinch at the grocery store and gas pump. Meanwhile, vaccine mandates, outright anti-vax sentiment, pandemic policies, and a desire to avenge 2020 election losses, are animating and motivating the Republican base.

So far, it’s a different story for Democrats, who control the White House, Congress (albeit barely) and hold a trifecta in Maine state government. Policy disputes in Congress between the activist base and elected Democrats dominated the latter half of 2021, often eclipsing victories that included passage of the American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure bill. A similar dynamic has played out locally, but it’s not clear if Mills will suffer from it.

LePage, his relationship with former President Donald Trump and his not-so-distant past in the Blaine House could be motivators for Maine Democrats, who outnumber registered Republicans.

Tribal gaming bill

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Thursday narrowly approved a bill giving Maine’s Wabanaki tribes rights to operate mobile sports betting enterprises.

The 8-6 vote has been framed as a compromise between the Mills administration and the tribes, who remain at odds over a more sweeping sovereignty bill that also emerged with a slim, mostly party-line vote earlier in the week.

The mobile sports betting proposal would give the tribes access to a sports betting market that Goldman Sachs recently predicted will be worth $39 billion in the U.S. over the next 10 years. The bill has riled existing gaming operators, mainly Hollywood Casino in Bangor and Oxford Casino, which had hoped to snag a share of the mobile sports gaming market in a bill that received initial approval last year but is not yet law. The bill that cleared the Judiciary Committee this week was amended to blunt their opposition by allowing in-person sports betting at Oxford Casino and the racetrack affiliated with Hollywood Casino in Bangor.

But that concession has not appeased other established gaming interests, who noted repeatedly in work sessions that in-person sports betting would be a fraction of the profits associated with mobile sports betting.

Meanwhile, the tribes continue to back the proposal, but they’ve made it abundantly clear that it’s no substitute for the sovereignty bill.

The governor’s office has expressed concerns with the sovereignty bill, which would limit the state's ability to regulate fishing and hunting on tribal lands; expand the jurisdiction of tribal courts to handle criminal offenses committed on tribal lands; and allow them to tax tribal members or entities on Indian lands. It has been framed as a moral imperative and civil rights issue by some Democrats and a long overdue step that will finally put tribes in Maine on equal footing with more than 500 other federally recognized tribes.

Nevertheless, both bills face obstacles. Republicans on the Judiciary Committee unanimously opposed the sovereignty proposal, which means there’s unlikely enough votes to override Mills if she decides to veto it.

The fate of the mobile sports betting bill is even murkier. While all but one Democrat approved it in committee, bills involving gaming are known to splinter partisans. However, a simple majority in the House and Senate could be enough to make it become law.

Another debate over debates?

It’s also official that there will only be one congressional primary in Maine this June – between two Republicans in Maine’s 2nd District.

The candidates are former Congressman Bruce Poliquin, who represented the district for four years, and Liz Caruso of Caratunk, who got a taste of statewide politics by helping to lead last fall’s successful referendum campaign to block the CMP corridor.

Poliquin was hoping to glide into November without a primary challenger as he seeks to do to incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden what Golden did to him in 2018. He’s already picked up support from the GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But Caruso has other plans and quickly issued a challenge to her opponent after both qualified for the ballot.

“In order to ensure voters have a local opportunity to hear from us, I am proposing a schedule of 11 debates, one in each county in the district,” Caruso wrote in a letter to Poliquin. “I have started the process of discussing venues and dates with local Republican officials in each county and have gotten a very positive response so far.”

Caruso said on Thursday that she hadn’t heard back yet but that 2nd District voters deserve to know where both she and Poliquin stand on issues. Debates are also a great way for local voters to access candidates, she said.

Poliquin’s campaign spokesman, Brent Littlefield, responded to a query from Maine Public about potential debates without actually responding to the question.

“Bruce Poliquin is the only candidate for Congress who has a proven record of consistently supporting the right-to-life, constitutional 2nd Amendment rights, and a balanced budget amendment,” Littlefield wrote in a statement. “That is the reason why hundreds of Maine people have donated to support his campaign from across the 2nd Congressional District.”

The latter comment appears aimed at the massive fundraising discrepancy between Poliquin and Caruso. According to the most recent campaign filings, the former congressman had raised nearly $1.5 million as of December 31 while Caruso had raised just over $16,000, with $3,000 of that coming from the candidate herself.

“I’m more about the people than I am about the money,” Caruso said.

Other congressional candidates

Neither Golden nor Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree will face primary challengers this June. In the 1st District, Ed Thelander was the only Republican to file the signatures needed to challenge Pingree this November. Thelander is a retired Navy SEAL and business owner from Bristol.

Several independents have also filed initial candidacy paperwork with federal elections officials to run in the 1st and 2nd District. Those non-party candidates have until June 1 to submit at least 2,000 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the November ballot.

Lowering energy costs

In last week’s Pulse, we talked about how elected officials were scrambling to find ways to respond to skyrocketing costs for gas, heating oil and electricity in Maine.

One of those initiatives – a proposal from Senate President Troy Jackson to provide $1,000 tax rebates to residential electricity customers and $2,500 rebates to businesses – received a public hearing this week.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed strong interest in helping Mainers who saw part of their electricity bills jump up 80 percent this year. But Jackson’s late-filed proposal was only a “concept draft” that didn’t contain any specifics, such as income eligibility criteria and whether rebates would be flat sums or tied to usage.

Several members of the Taxation Committee questioned whether there was enough time to craft such a complex measure.

“This bill really needs to happen, but it really needs work,” said Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn. “I mean, it’s not ready for primetime yet.”

The committee tabled Jackson’s bill, LD 2010, until next week as lawmakers explore potential ways to help residential or business ratepayers in the short term. But doing it via tax rebates would be complicated -- particularly for businesses -- and the Legislature is slated to adjourn in a month.

Meanwhile, legislative leaders may decide on Thursday whether to allow another late-filed bill to suspend Maine’s 30-cents-per-gallon gas tax for the rest of the year. Gov. Janet Mills has expressed an openness to considering a gas tax holiday, but her administration continues to argue that their idea of $750 direct checks is the best and fastest way to help Mainers absorb rising costs.

State House flooded

The State House was closed for much of the week after burst pipes flooded parts of the ground floor and basement. Contractors have been on site all week working to dry out areas and repair damage.

The incident forced legislative leaders to cancel House and Senate floor sessions. But because committees are still meeting virtually (with some going hybrid), the closure of the State House didn’t affect other legislative work. In fact, it gave some committees additional time to chip away at the piles of bills still sitting on the members’ virtual desks.

The State House is expected to reopen to the public next week, with House and Senate floor sessions scheduled for Tuesday.

Programming note

The regularly scheduled Pulse podcast and broadcast excerpt are on hiatus this week.

State House reporter Kevin Miller is taking some well-deserved time off, while chief politics and government reporter Steve Mistler is on assignment for Maine Public’s Climate Driven series.

Both the newsletter and the podcast will continue as scheduled next week.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings. Maine's Political Pulse is written by Maine Public by political correspondents Kevin Miller and Steve Mistler and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

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