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Emptying the reporters' notebook with two months to go till Election Day

Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor, campaigns at gun shop, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Gray, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor, campaigns at gun shop, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, in Gray, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: Democrats target LePage's policies instead of character, an up-and-coming GOP governor's visit to the state, and who tracks the trackers?

The post-Labor Day campaign stretch is here. Candidates and affiliated parties and groups are sharpening their attacks.

It’s time to empty the notebook ...

The policy pivot

Maine Democrats used the opening days of the post-Labor Day blitz to lay out their critiques of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and his two prior terms as governor.

That’s nothing new, but there’s something different about their rhetoric this time compared to when LePage ran for a second term in 2014.

During a press conference featuring three lawmakers who served while LePage was governor, Democrats spent less time blasting his conduct and impolitic comments — although they definitely didn’t omit that — and more time railing against his policies.

That included how his bid to slash income taxes could jack up property taxes because it could lead to cuts in state revenue sharing with municipalities. Portland Rep. Mike Brennan repeatedly emphasized this point, suggesting that LePage’s vague tax cut plan would inevitably lead to a shift in the tax burden elsewhere, mainly property tax bills. They also tried to demonstrate that his conduct affected governance at the State House, which they described as erratic and chaotic.

One could read the Democrats’ rhetorical shift, combined with their attempts to puncture LePage’s rebranding effort, as recognition that running against his past utterances is of limited utility in persuading voters that he’s not fit for a third, nonconsecutive term. After all, Democrats repeatedly pegged LePage as “a national embarrassment” in the 2014 campaign only to see him win by more votes than he did in 2010.

Focusing on what he did, and what he might do, also provides a contrast with Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who spent most of her first term trying to reverse many of LePage’s initiatives.

It’s the gas, stupid

Meanwhile, Republicans remain hyperfocused on blaming Democrats for high gas prices.

The central argument in the Maine GOP response to the Democrats’ press conference was to point out that two of the participants co-sponsored a bill that would have increased fuel costs by putting a fee on carbon emissions. The bill was proposed three years ago and died without a roll call vote.

The effect of highlighting such a bill is unclear. Republicans repeatedly dubbed Sen. Nicole Grohoski “Gas Tax Grohoski,” only to see her win a special election in June by 25 percentage points. However, the voters who turn out for a special election are often very different from those who vote during a general election. That might explain why Republicans have doubled down on their strategy and extended it to all contests on the ballot this year.

While it might seem quixotic to put so much emphasis on a bill that never went anywhere, it might have resonance if voters remain angry about fuel prices in November.

It also might not matter that, aside from raising fuel taxes, state-level politicians don’t have a lot of sway in determining fuel prices. As Ben from the TV series “Veep” once noted to a fictitious president, “Nobody understands the economy. Literally, nobody.” The same goes for gas prices, which have recently fallen amid a decline in global demand. That’s one reason why the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries announced this week that it will slightly decrease production in October.

Money and rhetoric flowing

This week’s fundraiser for LePage with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin — a rising star within the GOP — certainly garnered some campaign cash for LePage’s race against Mills. And Youngkin made an impression on some in attendance.

“Gov. Youngkin is tremendous,” Gerry from Weld told us after leaving the event. “Just a strong, honest man who just speaks from his heart.”

“A powerful speech,” added Jim Walker of Auburn. “I think he did a wonderful thing in Virginia.”

Youngkin’s trip north didn’t play so well with some people (mostly Democrats) back home, though.

A story in The Washington Post carried the headline, “Youngkin to boost Maine’s LePage despite racially incendiary rhetoric.”

The Virginia Democratic Party went even further in a press release, declaring “Gov. Youngkin to campaign for unhinged, racist gubernatorial candidate in Maine.”

Democratic leaders in Virginia’s General Assembly noted the governor’s absence as state lawmakers met in Richmond for a special session.

“To be going to Maine to stand with a person like that today, while we are here working, is shameful,” Delegate Don Scott Jr., that state’s Democratic minority leader, said on the House floor while echoing his party’s own incendiary statements about LePage.

Scott then recounted a few of the headline-grabbing incidents in which LePage’s past racially charged rhetoric landed him in hot water.

He claimed that “90-plus percent” of the mug shots in a binder of drug dealers arrested in Maine were Black or Hispanic. (They weren’t.) He said guys with names like “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” came to Maine to sell heroin but that “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.” And he said the NAACP paints all white Americans as racist, adding that the “NAACP should apologize to the white people, to the people from the North for fighting their battle” during the Civil War.

Virginia governors can only serve a single, four-year term. So there’s been speculation that Youngkin’s trips to Maine and other states with heated gubernatorial races is really an attempt to boost his own profile with Republicans nationwide ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Close to (Youngkin’s) vest

Democrats used Youngkin’s visit this week to hammer LePage on the topic of abortion.

While LePage has dismissed claims that he’ll impose restrictions on the procedure if he’s elected even if Republicans gain a majority in the Legislature, Democrats this week asserted that Youngkin was also vague about his plans for abortion restrictions before he got elected. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer, Youngkin announced he’d back a ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“(Youngkin) tried at all costs to avoid talking about how is was going to rip away decades of women’s rights and ban abortion in the Commonwealth,” Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker said during a press call with Maine Democrats this week. “He knew his position on abortion was out of touch and too extreme for Virginians, so he hid it. And then right when he gets in office, what does he do? He pushes for an abortion ban going as far as saying he’ll ‘gleefully’ sign any abortion ban that hit his desk. Don’t let LePage do the same thing!”

Virginia Democrats also repeatedly mocked Youngkin’s omnipresent vest. As it turns out, the Virginia governor gifted a monogrammed vest to LePage on Thursday.

Judges: Beware independent legislature theory

A group representing the highest-ranking judges in all 50 states, including Maine, is urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to block them from being able to scrutinize and halt actions by state legislatures that affect the drawing of electoral maps or voting restrictions.

The Conference of Chief Justices filed a brief this week in a case that could have major implications for state law courts by effectively removing them from intervening or adjudicating disputes over redistricting and voting laws. The brief was filed in a case involving North Carolina where Republicans are contesting the state court there over a ruling that blocked the GOP Legislature’s redrawn maps for 14 congressional districts because of extreme gerrymandering concerns.

Republicans in the state are claiming that the state court overstepped, citing what’s known as the independent legislature theory, a constitutional interpretation that deems only state legislatures have the authority to set the “times, places and manner” of federal elections. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court and it could have huge ramifications for voting rules and redistricting if the conservative majority adopts the independent legislature theory.

While many legal experts view the independent legislature theory as a radical reading of the U.S. Constitution, it appears to have some backers on the current Supreme Court. Additionally, the composition of the court has been shaped by the same man who helped install the conservative justices who recently overturned Roe v. Wade: Leonard Leo.

NPR last month reported on the Honest Elections Project, which has received millions of dollars in funding from groups associated with Leo. The Honest Elections Project has also submitted a brief in the North Carolina case arguing that even state constitutions do not constrain state legislatures from passing voting restrictions.

The group representing top judges in all 50 states disputes that interpretation, arguing, "The Elections Clause does not derogate from state courts' authority to decide what state election law is, including whether it comports with state and U.S. Constitutions.”

Tracking the tracker

The near-altercation between LePage and a Democratic “tracker” several weeks ago has apparently come full circle: the tracker is now the tracked.

During Wednesday’s fundraiser in Lewiston, the same Maine Democratic Party staffer who had a run-in with LePage in Aroostook County last month was back in action with his camera phone. Only this time, he had company in the form of several LePage team members accompanying him everywhere and, in some cases, trying to block his videography attempts.

Both parties as well as outside political groups frequently employ such trackers to monitor the opposing candidate’s every move in public. They are ever-present shadows at campaign events, oftentimes to the annoyance of the candidates and staffers as some get up close and personal with their cameras.

LePage bristled at the Democratic tracker for allegedly invading his personal bubble during an event in Madawaska, saying, “Six feet away or I’m gonna deck you ... You come into my space, you’re going down.”

This time around, the unnamed tracker wasn’t getting within 60 feet of LePage because the fundraiser with Youngkin was a private event. No trackers or media allowed.

Trackers are a persistent lot, however, so at one point he attempted to get footage of silhouetted figures (possibly including LePage) on an elevated walkway connecting the fundraiser site with a parking garage. But two presumably Republican staffers tried to block his view with LePage signs, while a third filmed the whole thing on his cellphone.

Maine Public did not see anyone get decked, however.

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