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Former Gov. Paul LePage says Maine elections hard to rig, on heels of unfounded ballot-stuffing claims

Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor, speaks to a man during a campaign stop outside Dysart's Restaurant and Pub, Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Bangor, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor, speaks to a man during a campaign stop outside Dysart's Restaurant and Pub, Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Bangor, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: LePage walks fine line between fraud claims and discouraging voter turnout; Rep. Jared Golden joins GOP to oppose gun-control bill; primary election watch; the Maine connection in clash of foreign agents.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage recently told an interviewer that Maine elections are “very, very difficult to rig” in comments that suggest the gubernatorial candidate is balancing his push for anti-voter-fraud measures touted by the GOP against rhetoric that could discourage conservative voter turnout this fall.

LePage’s remarks at a Republican fundraising event were in response to a question from a man who posted the interview on Rumble, a social media platform popular among right wing users, as well as content producers who have either fled, or been kicked off, YouTube — in some cases for peddling falsehoods that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

LePage, who is attempting to unseat Democratic Gov. Janet Mills this year, was asked by the interviewer what he would say to people who “feel their vote doesn't really count anymore” and that they “can't change anything” because the system is “rigged.”

“From a national point of view, I can't speak to that,” LePage responded. “But here in Maine, the votes count. They count a lot. Because we still use paper ballots. ... And at the end of the day, it's very, very difficult to rig an election in Maine.”

LePage’s comments contrast with unsubstantiated claims he made this spring that Massachusetts people had somehow engaged in a ballot-stuffing scheme in Maine during the 2009 same-sex marriage referendum. Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, and former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, refuted LePage’s claims by outlining how such an election-rigging operation is improbable, in part because of the way election officials match tabulated votes against the number of people on voting lists.

Ironically, LePage echoed similar assurances when explaining to the interviewer that Maine’s vote tabulation machines — another bugaboo among 2020 election deniers and fabulists — can’t be manipulated to alter election outcomes.

“At the end of the day, the paper vote has to equal the machine, and if there's a discrepancy, the paper vote counts,” he said. “So I have a lot of confidence that the votes are being counted.”

LePage then pivoted to voter ID, which he said would ensure that the people who vote “are from Maine.”

The former governor’s remarks come amid ongoing doubts among GOP voters about the integrity of American elections. Those doubts have been fueled by Trump. His ongoing efforts to convince supporters he won the 2020 election have become a litmus test of sorts for GOP candidates running this year.

LePage himself was an earlier backer of Trump’s claims, telling radio station WGAN shortly after the 2020 election, “I tell you, this is clearly a stolen election. I think 70 million (Trump voters) all recognize that too many votes were illegitimate votes. People have voted more than once.”

Some Republican candidates have since attempted to soften similarly unsubstantiated assertions following the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. There’s also concern that repeatedly telling Republican voters that their votes don’t count will deter them from turning out for elections.

That’s apparently what happened in two U.S. Senate races in Georgia. The contests ultimately tipped the balance of power to Democrats in 2021. An analysis of voting data by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that voter turnout in Republican strongholds dipped between the 2020 November election and the Jan. 2021 runoffs. The falloff in participation was particularly acute in districts in which Trump held rallies. During those events the former president urged voters to back GOP senate candidates while simultaneously pushing his stolen election fallacy.

Some Republicans interviewed by the AJC said they didn’t see the point in voting in the runoff. Allies of Sen. Mitch McConnell, who would have been majority leader if the GOP Georgia candidates won the runoff, blamed Trump for both narrow losses.

The Maine gubernatorial race is expected to be close this year and LePage is hoping Republican enthusiasm will help carry him to a third, nonconsecutive term. Telling GOP voters that their votes won’t count does not help that cause.

According to the video, LePage made his remarks at a Republican fundraiser hosted by Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred. Sampson made headlines several times last year for speaking at events alongside anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists, and comparing Mills and her sister, Dr. Dora Mills, to Nazi doctors. Sampson also distributed affidavits that called on state election officials to conduct an audit of the 2020 Maine election results by turning over voter data to the same Trump activists that conducted the highly controversial audit in Arizona.

LePage, who appointed Sampson to the Maine State Board of Education during his two previous terms as governor, described the Alfred Republican in the interview as a “very good legislator.”

Golden joins GOP in opposing gun safety bill

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, of the 2nd District, joined most Republicans in opposing an aggressive gun-control bill that included raising the minimum age for the purchase of most semiautomatic rifles to 21 and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.

The proposal was advanced by the Democratic-controlled House, 223-204. Golden, who is expected to face a tough reelection fight this year, was one of two Democrats who opposed it. Wednesday’s vote came on the heels of wrenching testimony from survivors and the parents of a victim of the May 24 mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, as well as a previous mass shooting targeting Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y.

Thirty-one people were killed between both shootings, including 19 fourth graders in Uvalde.

In a release explaining his vote, Golden said the House proposal had little chance of passing the U.S. Senate. He compared the bill to others that inevitably follow mass shootings, but that ultimately fail because the proposals are overtly partisan.

“While a handful of the individual provisions in the two bills before us have the potential to garner bipartisan support, taken as a whole, the bills are too sweeping in their design and fall far short of the support necessary to become law and save lives,” he said. “I regret that the House did not follow the Senate’s lead and engage in a substantive, bipartisan process that could positively contribute to a final agreement.”

Golden made direct reference to a proposal being negotiated in the Senate by a handful of legislators, including Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

Reports suggest that details of the Senate proposal could emerge before the end of the week. Collins has previously indicated that there could be common ground among Democrats and Republicans if the bill is narrowly tailored to model Maine’s so-called “yellow flag” law, which allows law enforcement — with the backing of a medical professional — to petition the courts and temporarily seize guns from someone considered a danger to themselves or others. Some red flag laws broaden the concept to allow family members, medical professionals, school officials and coworkers to petition the courts for such a seizure.

Golden’s statement was accompanied by supporting statements from Sportsman Alliance of Maine and the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, both of which expressed hope that the yet-to-be-unveiled Senate measure will win a majority vote.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, of the 1st District, was a co-sponsor of the House bill that advanced Wednesday. She lauded the five Republicans who voted with Democrats to advance the measure. Only one of those five — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, of Pennsylvania — is seeking reelection this year.

“Gun violence has sadly been a prevalent part of American life for decades, and this year, we’re on pace to have our deadliest year on record,” Pingree said in a statement. “There have been more mass shootings in the U.S. than days so far in 2022. From schools and churches to public gatherings and grocery stores, innocent lives continue to be lost because of senseless gun violence. We can’t let this stand.”

Election watch

Next Tuesday, June 14, is primary election day in Maine.

Here’s what we’re watching:

  • Special election, Senate District 7: The winner of the contest between state Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, and former Republican state Sen. Brian Langley is unlikely to cast a single vote before the November election that will decide which of the two will hold the seat for the next two years. But both parties are putting a lot of effort into the contest, which is considered a bellwether of sorts for control of the Maine Senate. So far, outside groups have dumped more than $260,000 attempting to influence the contest. Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson described the race at the party’s state convention as a must-win. “I mean, if we win that race, it demoralizes them (Republicans) and sets the tone for November.”
  • Democratic primary, Senate District 8: The primary between Abe Furth, co-owner of Orono Brewing, and Mike Tipping, a progressive activist with the Maine People’s Alliance, is already notable for the fact that Democratic legislative leaders, including Jackson, have chosen sides (Jackson and his leadership team endorsed Furth). There’s also disputes over endorsements, lawn signs and even the requisite ethics complaint. Tipping has won the backing of the MPA, which typically works to elect Democrats, but in this case, not Furth. There’s also a beer component: Furth has received a digital ad boost from the political action committee of fellow brewer, state Sen. Heather Sanborn, the Portland Democrat who owns Rising Tide Brewery.
  • Cumberland County District Attorney primary: The contest between incumbent DA Jonathan Sahrbeck and challenger Jackie Sartoris has made headlines because of the outside spending that, as of Thursday, had exceeded $350,000. All of that outside spending is coming from a PAC funded by billionaire Democratic financier George Soros, who is backing efforts to install progressive prosecutors across the country. It’s the most expensive prosecutor race in Maine history. The winner will run uncontested in November.

Foreign agents

There’s almost always a Maine angle.

That was true this week when the Washington Post reported that Christina Pushaw, spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, had belatedly filed as a foreign agent after being notified by the U.S. Justice Department that she had to. Pushaw was required to file as a foreign agent because of her paid work on behalf of the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, between 2018 and 2020.

As it turns out, part of Pushaw’s job was going “toe-to-toe” with Maine native and political consultant Samuel Patten. At the time, Patten was working on behalf of a Ukrainian political party. In 2017, Patten pled guilty for failing to register as a foreign lobbyist. He reportedly said he was helped by a Russian national who had been connected to Russian intelligence by U.S. prosecutors.

Patten’s plea deal included his cooperation with the high-profile probe led by former special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who was appointed to that position in 2017 to investigate Russian efforts to assist the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. Patten would later admit that he helped send $50,000 from a Ukrainian politician to Trump’s inaugural committee.

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