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From health care to land conservation, LePage has a hard time outrunning his past

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

In this week’s Pulse: LePage's history with Medicaid expansion, LePage gets an "incomplete" from sportsmen, money dumps, police union calls out ‘misinformation’ in high-profile race, and upcoming debates.

The Mills administration this week championed a significant drop in the state’s rate of uninsured residents, an improvement stemming from Democrats’ hard-fought battle with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income Mainers.

That yearslong fight could also serve as a point of contrast in the race between Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and LePage, who is seeking a third, nonconsecutive term.

LePage used every tool at his disposal to block Medicaid expansion during his two previous terms, including successfully campaigning GOP lawmakers to sustain his vetoes of expansion bills in the Legislature and refusing to implement the expanded program after voters forced the issue in 2017.

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Mills and the Democrats have for months attempted to remind voters of LePage’s recalcitrance, which included legal disputes over the voter-approved law. But this week, a report from the U.S. Census Bureau documenting the state’s decline in the number of people uninsured — from 8% to 5.7% between 2019 and 2021 — has given the governor a tangible statistic to wield on the campaign trail.

“Having health insurance saves lives. That’s why since my first day in office, I have fought to make health care more accessible and more affordable for all Maine people. This report shows we are succeeding,” Mills said in a statement this week. “Over the last two years, despite the challenges of the pandemic, Maine outperformed every other state in improving health coverage. Now more Maine people can see a doctor, afford medications, and receive preventive care, keeping families and our economy both healthy.”

LePage often described Medicaid as “medical welfare,” a pejorative term meant to link the program with other low-income assistance that he successfully cut.

Medicaid is a vital cog in the Affordable Care Act. LePage and other GOP governors intensified their resistance to expanding it after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upheld the legality of the ACA but effectively made Medicaid expansion a state decision after it was previously mandated in the health care law.

LePage frequently railed against Medicaid, known as MaineCare here, and its impact on the state budget.

“The one thing I know is nobody can force me to put the state in red ink and I will not do that,” LePage said in a 2018 radio interview during the protracted legal wrangling over implementing the voter-approved law. “I will go to jail before I put the state in red ink. And if the court tells me I have to do it, then we’re going to be going to jail.”

To date, 14 states have not expanded and nearly all of them are led by Republican governors. Many of them have the highest uninsured rates in the country. Maine is ranked No. 14, among states — the lowest in New England.

Nonexpansion states Kansas and Wisconsin have Democratic governors whose efforts to expand the program through budget bills have been blocked by GOP-controlled legislatures.

Access to health care and insurance proved to be a significant political issue in the 2018 midterms when Democrats warned voters of efforts by the Republican-led Congress and former President Donald Trump to repeal the ACA. Its resonance as an issue this year is unknown, but Democrats and Mills will no doubt continue using the state’s falling uninsured rate as evidence that they were right about expansion and that LePage opposed it.

LePage gets an ‘Incomplete’ from sportsmen

The state’s best-known hunting and fishing organization released grades for dozens of political candidates this week rather than endorsements.

But the most politically intriguing part of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s 2022 “Election Guide” has to be the “incomplete” grade given to LePage. The grade, and the reasons behind it, suggest that some of the tensions between SAM leaders and LePage haven’t healed during his time out of office.

According to SAM’s guide, there were still several “unresolved issues” with LePage’s answers to the group’s candidate questionnaire even after a face-to-face, follow-up meeting with the former governor. The big sticking points pertained to whether LePage would support the Land for Maine’s Future program and tapping federal funds to protect deer habitat and build a new state fish hatchery.

When SAM took the unusual step of offering LePage a chance to revise his questionnaire answers, the campaign apparently agreed.

“However, within a few days Mr. LePage himself called and asked to have his questionnaire withdrawn and his answers remain confidential,” reads the guide. “Unfortunately, we had no choice but to honor his request.”

Early into his eight-year term as governor, LePage had worked closely with SAM leaders and lawmakers to prioritize protecting so-called deer yards that offer enough mature tree cover and other conditions to help relatively short-legged deer survive Maine’s deep, snowy winters. Part of that agreement was to preserve deer yards with the use of taxpayer-backed bonds through Land for Maine’s Future, or LMF.

But relations deteriorated between LePage and SAM leaders – including the organization’s president, former Republican lawmaker David Trahan – after LePage blocked or held up funding for LMF and opposed specific projects. LePage believes conservation deals are driving up land prices and drying up local property tax revenues. Conservation advocates strongly disagree and the issue became a recurring flashpoint in the latter years of LePage’s governorship.

Preserving deer yards is a key priority for SAM, as is tapping federal funds to accomplish it and to build a new fish hatchery to replace aging facilities. According to SAM, LePage is concerned about increasing the federal deficit. But the group says that, in both cases, those federal funds typically come from taxes and fees paid by sportsmen.

SAM’s election guide credits LePage for helping oppose a 2014 bear baiting referendum and for protecting the confidentiality of concealed carry gun permit holders, adding that “we are confident . . . LePage is a sure bet to defend our firearms rights.” But the authors said they were “very disappointed we could not complete our report on the positions and candidacy of Mr. LePage.”

Meanwhile, Mills received an ‘A’ grade from the group based on her answers to the questionnaire, her opposition to several gun control bills, her strong support for additional LMF funding and her work on hunting, fishing and PFAS issues.

In the races for Congress, 2nd District Democratic Rep. Jared Golden received an A+ while his Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, received an A. In the 1st District race, Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree received a D grade while Republican challenger Ed Thelander received an A.

Money dumps

The next campaign finance deadline for legislative and gubernatorial candidates is Tuesday, a report date that will yield a lot of boasting from candidates about small-dollar donors, in-state donors and the general size of their campaign war chests.

Those 42-day pre-General Election reports have value to the public, but arguably the most impactful and insightful reports are the ones the public can view right now. Those are known as independent expenditures, which detail spending on campaign messaging via ads, mailers, text messages and other communication executed by political action committees that operate independently from the candidate campaigns and without caps on the size of donations. Spending by these groups has exploded nationwide since the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, yielding a flood of outside money with difficult-to-trace origins and messaging that often stretches the boundaries of truth and taste. The groups aren’t supposed to coordinate with the campaign committees, but it’s often unspoken that they’ll do most of the negative campaigning so that the candidates they support won’t sully themselves with false claims.

There have been $6.3 million in outside spending so far this year, including $4.8 million trying to influence the race for governor. A good chunk of the gubernatorial spending has come since Labor Day.

So far, a PAC called Better Maine has spent the most at $2.4 million. The PAC is essentially a front for the Democratic Governors Association, a national group that elects Democratic governors. The Maine Republican Party is second in spending at $1.9 million, but most of that spending is anchored by the Republican Governors Association, the DGA counterpart that has funneled over $1 million to the Maine GOP, according to the most recent finance reports. The decision by the DGA and RGA to route their spending through PACs with Maine names is not uncommon here, or in other states. Outside money can turn off voters and funneling it through local groups, or ones that appear local, provides a bit of a facade.

The outside spending in this year’s state and federal elections (filed separately via the Federal Elections Commission) is expected to be high, just as it has been for the past decade. And the bulk of it has yet to come. The post-Labor Day flood has arrived, but the most ferocious ad blitzes don’t typically come until mid- to late-October when voters are paying close attention.

Police union calls out ‘misinformation’ in high-profile race

Maine’s largest police union is once again weighing in on the 2022 elections in Maine. But this time it’s to correct “misinformation” aimed at damaging Senate President Troy Jackson in his tight election campaign.

The Maine State Fraternal Order of Police Lodge put out a statement earlier this week seeking to debunk claims that Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, supported defunding police departments.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Michael Edes, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a written statement. While the police union has not endorsed Jackson or any other legislative candidates, Edes added that, “when the misinformation came to our attention, we felt a moral obligation to speak about Sen. Jackson as we would with any other supportive candidate.”

Edes’ letter is a response to signs and campaign materials that have been popping up around Aroostook County since the summer as Jackson faces a strong challenge from Republican Rep. Sue Bernard for his Senate District 1 seat.

The signs declaring “Vote Troy Jackson – Defund The Police” closely resemble Jackson’s own campaign materials, but were paid for by the Maine Republican Party.

Jackson was livid when the signs first appeared, calling them a “flat out lie” because he never supported calls to defund police departments amid the nationwide protests and rallies that followed the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.

The Maine GOP defended the signs, however, by pointing out that Jackson welcomed the support of a national group, The States Project. That group, in turn, had an affiliate organization, Future Now Action, produce model legislation that included diverting money from police departments to other community programs.

No such legislation was ever considered in the Maine Legislature, however. And while Jackson did tout The States Project as “our strongest ally” for their help winning legislative seats in 2018, he has not supported siphoning off money from police and, as senate president, has supported multiple state budgets that increased funding.

“Sen. Jackson has been a long time, consistent supporter of Maine Law Enforcement, whether at the State, County or Local level,” Edes wrote. “For the past 18 years, he has continually advocated for fully funding and in most cases, significantly increasing the funding of law enforcement agencies that fall within the State’s jurisdiction. Funding for training, facilities, staffing, and equipment have all increased under Sen. Jackson’s watch. Senator Jackson is considered a longtime supporter of law enforcement and in public safety as a whole.”

Bernard has sought to distance herself from the Maine GOP signs.

Debates

Debate season is almost upon us. So here’s a quick rundown of Maine Public’s upcoming events (in collaboration with the Portland Press Herald) with the candidates for governor and Congress. All take place at 8 p.m.

  1. Sept. 26 – 2nd Congressional District. Originally planned as a debate, this is more of a conversation now that Golden and Poliquin either declined or backed out. Instead, this will be a live, 30-minute Q&A with Bond.
  2. Oct. 4 – Live, televised gubernatorial debate between Mills, LePage and independent Sam Hunkler. This event is also co-hosted by the Lewiston Sun Journal.
  3. Oct. 12 – Live, televised 1st Congressional District debate between Pingree and Thelander.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and State House correspondent Kevin Miller, and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.