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With abortion debate stumble, LePage highlights GOP quagmire

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills debates Gubernatorial candidate Republican Paul LePage, right, on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine.
Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
Gubernatorial candidates at a debate hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: LePage stumbles on abortion debate question, Mills more poised, but cagey on some issues, LePage's dark portrayal of Portland, and control of the Maine Senate.

Earlier this week, former Maine Gov. Paul LePage inadvertently demonstrated the major challenge facing many Republicans nationwide during an election year that, just six months ago, political prognosticators were saying would be a GOP rout.

Over the course of several minutes during the first televised debate, LePage appeared flustered, frustrated and at times confused as he tried to answer questions about whether he would support additional restrictions on abortion if voters ushered him back into office next year.

“I don’t know what you mean by 15 weeks or 28 weeks,” LePage told moderators from Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald when asked about potential abortion bans starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy. “I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure I understand the question.”

“I understand the question,” incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills piped in, seeing an opening and seizing it. “I would not let such a law become effective. My veto pen will stand in the way of any restrictions on the right to abortion.”

In the post-Roe world created by the Supreme Court, Democrats have often painted the abortion debate in black and white: you either support preserving abortion rights, or you are hostile to them.

This fall, Maine Public and stations across the NPR Network are sharing stories from their communities about abortion access and reproductive rights. Our aim is to give you better insight into the lived reality and implications of these issues for people across the nation. You help Maine Public continue to tell the region’s story — and contribute to the national conversation — when you make a donation to Maine Public.

This is an oversimplified way of framing a complex and emotional policy issue that is wrapped up in health care, religion, morality, women’s rights, poverty, the constitution and, of course, politics. Many Americans support keeping abortion legal while simultaneously restricting how and when women can terminate a pregnancy.

But some Republicans in Maine and across the country have either struggled to navigate that obstacle course since the court’s June decision or, according to abortion rights defenders, are trying to hide their true intentions from voters who disagree with the high court.

Maine has had a law on the books since 1993 guaranteeing a woman’s right to access abortion – but only up until the point of fetal viability, which is generally regarded as between 24 and 28 weeks. After that, the procedure is only allowed to protect the life or health of the mother.

That’s a restriction. Some states explicitly allow late-term abortions if a pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, or if the fetus is found to have a medical condition that makes it unlikely it will survive after birth.

LePage opposes abortion rights but said several times during this campaign that he supports Maine’s law – including allowing later-term abortions to protect the life and health of the mother – and that he would not seek to overturn it. He said so again during Tuesday’s debate, albeit in a fumbling and LePage-esque way that likely didn’t help get his point across.

“The law that’s in place right now, I have the exact same place as you have,” LePage said to Mills, seated several feet away. “And I would honor the law as it is.”

But LePage got hung up on “viability” and “restrictions” – two terms that are definitely part of the political discourse since June. Mills also planted the seed that LePage would allow anti-abortion bills to take effect without his signature, which is an option available to Maine governors.

After pressing moderators for more clarity, LePage was presented with a simple question: if the Legislature presented him with a bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks, would he veto it? LePage replied with a straightforward, “Yes.”

It was the first time the former two-term governor has said publicly that he would oppose a 15-week ban. In so doing, he separated himself from Republican governors who signed or embraced abortion bans at that stage or sooner. GOP Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has also introduced legislation to impose a 15-week ban at the federal level.

LePage’s pledge to veto a 15-week ban didn’t sit well, however, with anti-abortion activists who have long regarded him as a staunch and reliable ally.

"It is very disturbing that he wouldn't support a ban after 15 weeks," Karen Vachon, executive director of Maine Right to Life, told The Associated Press. Maine Right to Life is a co-organizer of the annual anti-abortion rallies that LePage attended when he was governor.

That response again highlights the juggling act that LePage as well as Republican congressional hopefuls Bruce Poliquin and Ed Thelander and GOP legislative candidates face heading into November. Polls suggest that economic uncertainty and inflation – two issues that Republicans have been hammering for well over a year – remain the top concerns for voters. But many surveys show abortion polling second and third – and sometimes at the top for female voters.

Mills, meanwhile, likely disappointed some of the most ardent abortion rights supporters by signaling that she wouldn’t push to eliminate restrictions on late-term abortions in the case of rape or when a fetus has a fatal condition.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Postcovered LePage’s difficulty handling the abortion question. Both papers framed his struggles as emblematic of a post-Roe world in which a former red-meat issue for Republicans nationwide has suddenly become an electoral liability.

Mills more poised, but cagey on some issues

Tuesday’s debate provided journalists and politicos with plenty of opportunities to fact-check the candidates’ statements. While LePage received the most attention for an array of false statements, Mills was scrutinized for skirting tricky questions.

LePage called Mills “a liar” for accurately stating that he supported President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on refugees from several Muslim-majority countries. He claimed he “never rejected any election, including the 2020 election” when, in fact, he told a Maine radio program that the 2020 election was “clearly a stolen election” and wrote “stolen election” on the official sheet certifying Democratic Rep. Jared Golden’s ranked-choice win in 2018.

He also said sales taxes did not go up during his administration when, in fact, they increased from 5% to 5.5% during his second year in office, albeit over his objections. And he repeated the debunked claim that the Mills administration was distributing free “crack pipes.”

Mills often appeared more poised than her Republican opponent or independent Sam Hunkler, who is waging a long-shot, low-budget campaign for governor.

But the Democrat did a fair share of dodging during the debate.

Asked why the Wabanaki tribes should not have the same sovereignty and self-government rights enjoyed by more than 500 other federally recognized tribes, Mills said she is “committed to healing the divisions of the past and forging new tribal-state relationships based on mutual trust and respect.”

But she said there were “disagreements over policy” and that “we are talking about those things” without going into specifics.

Those disagreements were over a bill to overhaul the 1980 agreement between the state and the tribes. The sovereignty bill was the top priority of the four tribes in Maine this year and enjoyed broad support by Democratic lawmakers as well as unprecedented public support. But Mills killed the measure with a veto threat.

One major line of attack from Republicans against Mills has been on teachings of LGBTQ and race in schools – particularly on several voluntary, video lesson plans that the Maine Department of Education has promoted on its website. The department took down one of those videos on transgendered individuals after a backlash.

Asked for a response to those attacks, Mills called them “an attempt to deflect from his record on education and the eight years that we lost on progress on education.” Instead, Mills said parents should get involved locally if they have concerns since most curriculum decisions occur at the local level. And she focused on her administration’s work to increase teacher pay and to hit the state’s obligation to fund 55% of K-12 education costs for the first time since voters required it nearly 20 years ago.

Asked about Republican complaints that lawmakers were not involved in much of the state’s early COVID-19 response, Mills replied: “We did. We had a lot of Zoom meetings and telephone conferences with all kinds of stakeholders, including legislators.”

But Rep. Josh Morris, a Turner Republican who supports LePage this November, disagreed sharply with Mills’ portrayal of events.

“Gov. Mills absolutely did not work with legislators during the pandemic,” Morris said in a statement. “For her to assert otherwise is not true. Her policies hurt Mainers – she hurt students, she hurt parents, she hurt businesses, she hurt hardworking Mainers. I want to be crystal clear: if Janet Mills would have worked with the Legislature, her policies would have been much less harmful.”

LePage’s “American carnage”

During his two terms as governor LePage repeatedly used Portland as a foil in his efforts to advance his policies.

Now the former governor is finding the state’s largest city useful in his bid for a third, nonconsecutive term, framing it as a harbinger of the state’s future under Democratic rule.

He described Portland as a “concrete jungle” during a forum hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.

LePage also made two references to a campaign event he held last week in Deering Oaks Park. Before the event city officials cleared an encampment of unhoused people that the LePage campaign had planned to use as the backdrop for the former governor’s remarks. Instead, the campaign settled for a drained duck pond, which local law enforcement had searched as it investigated a recent shooting.

“Deering Park is not safe for you to bring your children,” LePage declared at Thursday’s debate with Mills. “It actually took a press conference in order to clean up the park for one day. Should I visit every day?”

It’s worth noting that the Portland Farmers Market took place near LePage’s press conference last week and several wandering shoppers stopped to watch as the former governor attempted to blame Mills for an increasingly deadly opioid epidemic and crime in general.

It’s unclear whether LePage’s dark portrayal of Portland during Thursday’s debate with Mills resonated with the crowd of business interests. Attendees were largely silent during his remarks. At the same time, the Portland Regional Chamber is engaged in a pitched political battle with ascendant progressive activists over a sweeping slate of 14 local ballot initiatives that could fundamentally reshape city government while also affecting rental properties and hiking the city’s minimum wage to $18 an hour.

Control of the Maine Senate

The gubernatorial race has attracted nearly $8 million in spending from political action committees working independently of the candidate campaigns, but another expensive campaign is underway that will determine control of the always flippable Maine State Senate.

Democrats currently control the chamber, but it’s almost always up for grabs and Republicans like their chances of retaking it after four years of toiling in the minority. The spending by outside groups is as good a metric as any in indicating where the battleground districts are. So far, $1.7 million has been spent on control of the Senate, including $1.3 million since June when special elections to fill vacant seats were completed.

Much of the spending – about $250,000 – has been spent in Aroostook County, where Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is facing Republican state Rep. Sue Bernard, of Caribou.

A Senate seat in Kennebec County ranks second in targeted spending so far at about $240,000. Democratic state Sen. Craig Hickman won the seat handily in a special election held in March 2021, but he’s facing a better known opponent this time, state Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston.

Senate District 20, representing western municipalities in Androscoggin County, including Auburn, has traditionally been a key seat in determining control of the Senate. And PACs are spending like it. Democrat Bettyann Sheats is facing former state Sen. Eric Brakey, and so far, PACs have spent about $230,000 trying to influence the contest. Most of the spending has been to support Sheats or opposing Brakey.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Chip Curry, of Belfast, is facing a challenge from state Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, of Knox, in a race that has drawn about $162,000 in outside spending so far.

Republicans are also hoping to reclaim a Lincoln County seat in a contest between Abden Simmons and Democrat Cameron Reny. Roughly $147,000 has been spent so far.

Notably, outside spending in the Hancock County race between Democratic Sen. Nicole Grohoski and former state Sen. Brian Langley is well below the more than $200,000 spent there for a special election between the same two candidates that Grohoski won easily in June. The dropoff in spending to about $30,000 since then might indicate that the GOP sees the seat as a less likely pickup opportunity, especially after Grohoski cruised in the special election.

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.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.