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Paul LePage, Bruce Poliquin accused of 'deflecting' abortion policy questions

Paul and Ann LePage in Windham on Tuesday.
Fred Bever
Maine Public
Paul and Ann LePage in Windham on Tuesday.

Abortion is expected to be a top issue in Maine’s fall elections in the wake of last week's Supreme Court decision.

The two top Republicans on the Maine ballot this November, former Gov. Paul LePage and former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, aren’t talking publicly about seeking any major restrictions on access to abortion in the state. But Democrats are accusing the two of “deflecting” or sidestepping questions about their plans for abortion policy because of historically strong voter support for protecting access to the procedure in Maine.

LePage made no new statements last Friday after the nation's highest court overturned the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade opinion, instead referring to a roughly month-old statement in which he referred to a “proven history of supporting life” and expressing opposition to taxpayer funding of abortion. The former two-term governor has been a vocal opponent of abortion and often participated in an annual anti-abortion rally at the State House.

But during an endorsement event in Windham on Tuesday, LePage downplayed the importance of the abortion issue — at least for his campaign to become governor.

"As far as abortion, I have not gone there,” LePage told reporters. “I don't think a governor should take a position on a social issue, and I don't. As my personal position is very clear. I am for life and I don't like late-term abortions."

LePage said in May, following the leak of the draft Supreme Court decision, that he supports the federal prohibition on the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. But Medicaid is jointly paid for by the federal government and states, and states can opt to spend their own resources on abortion for low-income women in their Medicaid programs.

Some anti-abortion activists in Maine have said that a top priority, if Republicans regain control in Augusta, would be to reverse the 2019 bill signed into law by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills that covers abortion under MaineCare, which is the state’s Medicaid program.

Asked about the issue on Tuesday, however, LePage said he couldn’t say whether he’d sign such a bill without reading it first.

“If I do anything, it will be this: If you use taxpayer dollars to abort a child, then you should be able to use taxpayer dollars to allow the young woman to go to term and give the baby up for adoption,” LePage said.

LePage added that, during his eight years in the Blaine House, he never tried to reverse the nearly 30-year-old law protecting a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy.

"I'm more concerned about the fiscal and economic systems here in Maine, what needs to be happening in Maine,” LePage said. “It's the economic issues that I'm concerned about."

Republicans are hoping to regain control of the governor's mansion as well as the Maine Senate and potentially both chambers of Congress this November. And on Tuesday, the second highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, traveled to Bangor to campaign for Poliquin in a signal of the national party's focus on the race in Maine's 2nd Congressional District.

But with polls suggesting strong support in Maine for preserving women's access to abortion, Republican leaders here have largely avoided high-profile celebrations of last week’s controversial ruling. And unlike politicians in other states, no leading GOP politicians in Maine are talking publicly about dramatic restrictions on access to the procedure other than restricting the use of taxpayer dollars.

"So I'm pro-life and very proud of it,” Poliquin said during a press conference with Scalise on the Bangor waterfront. “But even if you are pro-choice — and that's fine if that's what you believe in — the state of Maine has protections. Abortion is allowed in the state of Maine."

Both of Poliquin's opponents this November, incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden and independent Tiffany Bond, strongly criticized the Supreme Court ruling. Golden called it “a grave mistake” that will have “serious and harmful consequences for millions of women.” Bond has said decisions about abortion or any other medical issues are private matters between a patient and their doctor and that government “doesn’t belong in this space.”

Some conservative groups are calling on Republicans to pass nationwide restrictions on abortion if they win back control of Congress rather than allowing states to set local policies. Poliquin would not say whether he would support any federal restrictions other than a Republican bill that would require doctors to provide the same level of medical care to an infant that was born alive during an unsuccessful abortion procedure.

But Poliquin, who represented the 2nd District for four years before losing to Golden in 2018, said the abortion issue is otherwise back where it belongs — at the state level.

"I trust the people of Maine, I trust their local representatives, who are with them everyday at diners and going to church and what have you with these folks,” Poliquin said. “They will make the right decision on behalf of Maine and the folks in Massachusetts, their legislature will make the right decision on behalf of the people of Massachusetts. And so forth and so on."

For his part, Scalise said Republicans are “looking at a lot of different things” should Republicans win back the House.

“If we get a House majority, and I’m confident that we will, then let’s see what the make-up is and let’s see how far we can go to protect life . . . we are having this debate, states are having this debate now in a renewed way also,” he said.

Maine Democrats, meanwhile, have accused LePage of "deflecting" questions about whether he will seek to restrict access to abortion in Maine if he defeats Mills and the GOP wins control of the State House.

In a statement on Tuesday, Maine Democratic Party vice chair Bev Uhlenhake said LePage fought against abortion rights during his eight years in office.

“Paul LePage could not make it any more obvious that he does not care about the reproductive freedoms of Maine people,” Uhlenhake said. “When he was governor, he fought against abortion rights in our state. Now with Roe overturned and a procession of abortion opponents behind him, we know he won’t turn down the chance to ban abortion. We cannot let someone so wildly out of touch with our state on reproductive rights back in the Blaine House.”

Production assistance on this story from WMTW.