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Mills runs safe, LePage runs risky as Maine race for governor intensifies

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Pat Wellenbach, Robert F. Bukaty
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Composite of AP file photos
Newly inaugurated Maine Govs. Paul LePage (left) and Janet Mills, deliver remarks after being sworn in on Jan. 5, 2011, and Jan. 2, 2019, respectively.

In this week’s Pulse: The election is coming...this week we recap the trends and themes we've seen so far.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is running like she’s ahead in the race for the Blaine House and repeatedly highlighting her defense of abortion rights. Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage is gobbling press attention in an apparent effort to broadcast his message outside of the conservative media ecosystem.

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At the same time, relentless campaigns of ads from the candidates, and from the groups working independently from them, are bombarding what recent polls suggest is a small pool of persuadable voters. Those same polls also suggest Mills is ahead and that LePage’s path will be determined by the mysterious, unpredictable whims of Maine’s independent electorate. But Democrats, burned recently by overly optimistic pre-election surveys, are wary and targeting LePage’s past conduct, his tax breaks, and somewhat subtly, his commitment to the state he left almost immediately after his second term.

Things could change, but it’s as if the 2022 gubernatorial contest between Mills, LePage and independent Sam Hunkler has established a hectic but almost predictable rhythm that will intensify as the days before the Nov. 8 election dwindle.

The first debate between the three candidates on October 4th will be hosted by Maine Public, the Portland Press Herald and the Lewiston Sun Journal. (Keep reading for details).

Meanwhile, two congressional contests continue to churn. The 1st District race between Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican challenger Ed Thelander remains low key. The 2018 rematch between Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and independent Tiffany Bond briefly took center stage this week when the three candidates met for what will likely be their only debate together.

There are fewer than 40 days remaining before the election. Now is as good a time as any to recap the trends and themes we’ve seen so far.

Mills running like she’s ahead?

In the past 2 ½ weeks, LePage has held press conferences on K-12 education, Maine’s drug crisis and perceived threats to one of the state’s few remaining papermills.

Mills has not had a campaign-related press conference in weeks, although she is slated to hold one with independent U.S. Sen. Angus King on Friday morning.

That’s not to say Mills isn’t out there campaigning. A quick glance at her Facebook page shows the Democrat hit the Cumberland Fair, the Common Ground Fair in Unity and the Dempsey Challenge cancer fundraiser in Lewiston within the past week.

But with several polls now suggesting Mills has a decent-sized lead over LePage, the incumbent appears to be running like she’s ahead while also doing the usual governor stuff – which in her case is almost daily announcements of millions of dollars for this or that popular initiative.

LePage, meanwhile, is on offense. And while independent Sam Hunkler is popping up around the state, his nearly zero-budget campaign doesn’t appear to be generating much of a buzz.

The race between LePage and Mills has always been expected to be close and essentially come down to a battle over independents, given the strong emotions the two candidates elicit from loyal Democratic and Republican voters.

Two polls released in the past week suggest the pool of undecideds is small and shrinking, however.

A survey conducted by Emerson College Polling – a well-respected national polling outfit – shows Mills ahead of LePage 53 percent to 41 percent, with 4 percent undecided and just 1 percent planning to vote for Hunkler. The survey of more than 1,100 “very likely voters” had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

The University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll, meanwhile, showed Mills again at 53 percent but LePage down to 39 percent. About 5 percent of the nearly 700 respondents in the UNH poll were undecided while Hunkler again pulled in just 1 percent. The margin of error was 3.7 percent.

In both polls, men were more likely to favor LePage while Mills had much stronger support among women. That gender gap was sizable in both polls but was massive in the UNH survey in which 62 percent of women backed Mills versus just 27 percent supporting LePage.

That dynamic, if accurate, helps explain why Mills and the Democrats continue to hammer such issues as abortion and education. Sensing a political vulnerability following COVID school closures and debate over book bans, however, LePage and Republicans have been talking about the need for a “Parents Bill of Rights” and more parental control over what is taught in schools.

The Nationals

It’s been the case for more than a year now, but the Maine Republican Party and LePage campaign are continuing their strategy of using national issues from the GOP playbook to make their case against Mills.

Last week, the LePage campaign released an outline of his parents bill of rights, an initiative first tested by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who initially tapped parent anger at pandemic restrictions and school closures and used it to stoke conservative anger over teachings of race and LGBTQ issues in public schools.

LePage this week tried to localize a national conservative uproar over the Biden Administration’s grant program for substance abuse disorder, specifically an initiative following the doctrine of harm reduction, which aims to keep people alive when using drugs by facilitating the use of clean syringes and providing access to the overdose reversal drug Naloxone.

Curiously, LePage focused more on a refuted claim that the grants were providing drug users with free crack pipes and less on its actual goal of providing clean syringes to curtail the spread of infectious diseases. That could be because Republicans aren’t as unified against the latter practice, as evidenced in the approval of a 2017 bill that codified a needle exchange program; the bill had GOP co-sponsors and enough supporters to override LePage’s veto.

But as with the schools issue, LePage’s record and comments threatened to undercut attacks that lesser known GOP gubernatorial candidates may have successfully deployed elsewhere. By highlighting his opposition to harm reduction, LePage also opened the door to revisiting controversial comments he’s made about Naloxone -- comments he reiterated during his press event Wednesday.

“I am hostile to it because I look at Narcan as a method of sustaining life and extending life," he said. "I don't see it as a way of fixing the problem."

That led Courtney Allen, director of Maine Recovery Access Project, to say LePage’s position is inhumane and an indication that he has no intention of revising a law enforcement-centric approach to the opioid epidemic.

“What I saw today was that he (LePage) has not changed and he does not care about my community," said Allen, who herself is in recovery. “He does not care whether or not my friends are dying on the streets. He's using them as backdrops to his press conferences so that he can get hits in the media.”

The effectiveness of this tack by LePage is unknown, but it ties into a broader effort by Maine Republicans to link Democrats like Mills to President Joe Biden. While the president carried the state in 2020, his approval ratings here aren’t great, and a recent University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll showed that six in 10 respondents disapprove of his handling of the economy.

The economy, inflation and Biden’s deflated standing with the electorate are supposed to be Republicans’ keys to victory this year. However, the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade appears to have leveled the enthusiasm gap with Democrats. While abortion is definitely a national issue, the court decision has made abortion access a local one by putting it in the hands of state legislatures and governors. The economy is a local concern, too, but recent polls suggest that the GOP has been unable -- at least so far -- to tie those worries or anger to state-level Democrats.

Florida Man?

Democrats began their post-Labor Day blitz focusing on LePage’s past conduct and policies, a clear effort to pierce GOP attempts to rebrand him as less boorish and more focused on governing. LePage has arguably helped Democrats on several occasions, first by threatening to deck a Democratic videographer, and more recently, by reanimating an old conflict with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, an influential gun rights group also popular with hunters and fishermen.

But Democrats have also nibbled around the edges of another issue: LePage as Florida Man.

That was one subtext of a multi-day story that originated in the New York Times detailing how the former governor and former First Lady Ann LePage continue to benefit from a tax exemption available to residents of the Sunshine State. LePage denied the accuracy of the story, but Democrats used it to highlight his attempts to limit the same tax exemption in Maine, as well as raise questions about what he’ll do if he doesn’t win the governor’s race.

“Paul LePage is currently renting a home in Edgecomb. If he does not win the election, does he plan to return to Florida?” a press statement from the Maine Democratic Party asked last week.

LePage was widely criticized for announcing he was moving to Florida before he left office in 2019. Similar critiques surfaced when he returned to the state in 2020 to protest Mills’ pandemic restrictions from his car affixed with Florida license plates.

At the same time, LePage’s frequent appearances in the state, his repeated vows to run for reelection, as well as his summer bartending gigs in Boothbay Harbor, often make it seem like he never really left.

CD2 debate gets feisty

Democratic incumbent Rep. Jared Golden, former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin and independent Tiffany Bond put on quite a show this week during what is likely their only joint debate appearance in the 2nd Congressional District race.

The hour-long debate hosted by NEWS CENTER Maine largely tracked the multimillion ad campaigns that are boosting Golden and Poliquin. Bond, who isn’t running ads, used the airtime to try and upstage her rivals on questions about abortion and same-sex marriage, while also positioning herself as the pragmatic alternative to what she described as two bickering partisans.

And bicker they did – over immigration and the southern border, the Inflation Reduction Act, IRS agents and who was a more loyal defender of Maine’s lobster industry. Poliquin cast Golden as a pawn to the Biden-Pelosi agenda while Golden – who previously held a Democratic leadership position in the Maine Legislature – dubbed himself a “fierce independent voice.”

“I have voted against the Biden administration more than any other Democrat in Congress,” said Golden, looking like he walked straight from his woodlot to the studio in his flannel shirt, jeans and scuffed-up boots. “I have voted against my own party more than any other Democrat in Congress. I do that proudly for you.”

But it was Bond who had some of the most memorable moments in the fast-paced debate. A Portland attorney who primarily works in the Second District, Bond finished third behind Golden and Poliquin in 2018 and could influence the outcome again in another ranked-choice vote.

She stood quietly by (albeit sometimes with disapproving looks) as the current and former congressmen argued. She cast herself as the seasoned negotiator and problem-solver, given her family law experience, and took aim at the major parties like in her response to a question about abortion.

“Shame on all of us for letting politicians convince us that by judging our neighbors and their private decisions that they could fundraise more money off of us,” Bond said. “This should not be legislated at all.”

The abortion pushback

Staying on the topic of abortion, the LePage campaign tapped the former governor’s daughter, Lauren, to push back against what she says are inaccurate portrayals of his stance on the issue.

A recent ad paid for by the Democratic Governors Association claims that, “As governor, LePage supported letting states completely ban abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the woman.” The ad from the DGA spinoff group Better Maine then appears to attribute those statements to three Maine newspaper articles from 2014, 2016 and 2018.

While those articles make it clear that LePage is anti-abortion, there are no mentions of LePage opposing the procedure in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life and health of a woman.

Lauren LePage, who is once again helping with her father’s campaign, called the ads “ridiculous.”

“He has never opposed abortion in the traumatic circumstances of rape, incest of the life of the mother,” she said in a brief video posted on the campaign’s Facebook page. “It’s just not true. He was governor for eight years and he never did it. My dad would never endanger my life and he will not endanger yours.”

Governors and legislators in some Republican-led states have, in fact, severely restricted access to abortion even when a woman was raped or when the pregnancy poses a risk to the life of the mother. But Paul LePage issued the following statement in May after a draft version of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe. v. Wade was leaked to the press:

“The federal government has regularly prohibited taxpayer abortion funding, except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger; and I have supported that policy and would continue to do so,” LePage said.

The former governor is staunchly anti-abortion. During his eight years in office, he attended annual rallies that “mourned” the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

But polls suggest the majority of Mainers support preserving access to abortion. And as he tries to get back into the Blaine House, LePage now says he has no plans to undo Maine’s 29-year-old law guaranteeing women the right to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability and even afterward “when it is necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother.”

Programming notes

Beginning today, the Political Pulse will be teaming up with Maine Calling every Friday through Election Day to discuss the latest news and analysis from the campaign.

The Pulse podcast will continue posting Friday afternoons and an excerpt will also continue airing during All Things Considered around 5:35 p.m.

Maine Calling is broadcast live from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and rebroadcasts between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. In addition to hosting the Pulse team, Maine Calling is also bringing on Andy Smith from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center to discuss results from the latest Pine Tree State poll, as well as University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt.

Also, Maine Public is collaborating with the Portland Press Herald and Lewiston Sun Journal for the first gubernatorial debate. The debate will take place Tuesday, October 4th, at 8 p.m. and is scheduled for 90 minutes. As of Thursday, all three candidates -- Mills, LePage and independent Sam Hunkler -- have agreed to attend.

Have a question for the candidates? The Press Herald wants to hear from you. Email them here.

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.