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Abortion or the economy? The top issue in Maine's gubernatorial race depends on your politics

Abortion rights protestors shout up to the second floor of a building in Lewiston where Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was headlining a fundraiser for former Maine Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
Abortion rights protestors shout up to the second floor of a building in Lewiston where Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was headlining a fundraiser for former Maine Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday.

Abortion and economic issues are dominating the political debate in Maine. But a high-profile fundraiser this week for former Gov. Paul LePage highlights how Republicans and Democrats disagree on which issue is most important to voters.

More than 200 people turned out for the event Wednesday night in Lewiston that was headlined by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is considered to be among the Republican Party’s rising stars. Younkin's victory last November in increasingly blue Virginia was viewed as a possible bellwether for governor's races this year. And Youngkin's swing through Maine is part of a national tour to boost other Republican candidates — and potentially his own profile ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

"A powerful speech. I think he did a wonderful thing in Virginia,” said Jim Walker of Auburn, a diehard LePage supporter who attended the fundraiser at the Maine GOP’s office in downtown Lewiston.

Members of the media were not allowed into the fundraiser to hear Younkin or LePage speak. But Walker said he believes Youngkin's message on kitchen table issues, like the economy and schools, will resonate in Maine just like it did in Virginia last year.

"Basically for the working people who are tired of the way things are going and they need to get out and vote,” Walker said. “And he did a wonderful thing in Virginia by getting all of the parents who were just tired of the way things were going in schools, tired of the bureaucrats running things instead of the parents. And it's the same thing in Maine."

While the fundraiser was private, several dozen abortion rights protestors gathered on the sidewalk outside to make public their opposition to LePage and criticism of Youngkin. The group, which was organized by the political arm of Planned Parenthood, chanted “Youngkin and LePage, hear our rage,” as well as “abortion is health care” at the second-floor windows of the building where the event was taking place.

The Supreme Court's decision in June to eliminate federal protections for abortion has galvanized some voters and handed Democratic candidates like incumbent Maine Gov. Janet Mills a potentially powerful campaign weapon. For married couple Merrill Henderson and Joseph Seale of Gorham, abortion is a top issue in Maine this year because they, like many abortion rights supporters, don’t believe LePage’s claim that he is not interested in overturning Maine’s roughly 30-year-old law protecting access to abortion.

"I just can't fathom LePage trying to get into the governorship again in Maine,” Henderson said. “I think it's folly if he doesn't really care about Maine. And I also don’t believe that somebody should be coming here from Virginia and telling Mainers how to vote. We know how to vote ourselves.”

The 55-year-old Youngkin has described himself as anti-abortion with exceptions for cases involving rape, incest or when the life of the mother is threatened. He largely tried to avoid the topic of abortion during his 2021 gubernatorial campaign but, immediately after the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, he said he would support bills restricting access to abortion and came out in support of prohibiting the procedure after the 15th week of pregnancy.

LePage and other Republicans who are anti-abortion have said they’re not interested in seeking additional restrictions despite the fact that the Maine GOP’s official platform, adopted by party activists this spring, states that life begins at conception. Democrats have, in turn, accused LePage and other Republicans of trying to deceive voters because they risk alienating moderates and independents during what is expected to be a tight election.

"I heard LePage say recently that, 'Well, I'm not going to do anything to change abortion,’” Seale said. “But if a bill comes to him to sign, there is no way he is not going to. And that is not what Mainers want, I don't believe. It’s certainly not what I want. But I believe that the majority of Mainers don’t want that.”

The rally was loud but peaceful and wrapped up after a little more than an hour. But LePage supporters, such as Walker, said people are concerned about inflation and the prices of food, gasoline and heating oil.

“It’s not one of our issues,” Walker said of abortion. “It’s based mostly around the economy.”

Another LePage supporter who declined to give his name said economic issues are at the top of his mind.

"So somebody inside showed me the people outside and I said, ‘You know, that's not my battle,’” he said. “That's not going to get him (LePage) in and that's not going to keep him out, I think."

Maine voters will decide in two months whether to give Mills another four years or bring LePage back for a third, non-consecutive term. A third candidate, independent Sam Hunkler, is also on the ballot this November.