Donald Trump isn’t the only demagogic, race-baiting septuagenarian Republican politician threatening to return from a sunny Florida retreat to stalk the earth in an upcoming election. Former Maine governor Paul LePage, who credibly boasts that he was Trump before Trump was Trump, joined snowbirds in decamping to Florida after his state’s ban on more than two consecutive terms forced him to hand over the governor’s office to Democrat Janet Mills, his nemesis as attorney general for six of his eight years in office. At first, he vowed he was giving up politics for a quiet retirement and perhaps some teaching gig to scratch his itch to lecture everyone in sight.
But now, at the age of 72, LePage is back home and has announced he will challenge Mills in 2022. Leaders of his party seem resigned to resume their tutelage under this angry reactionary who is very far from the traditional image of mild-mannered Maine Republicans. It’s understandable: LePage defied expectations in both of his winning gubernatorial races in 2010 and 2014, nearly winning a majority the second time around (though still needing, as he did in 2010, an independent candidacy to achieve a plurality). And Trump, his Washington doppelgänger, did well enough in rural Maine to win a single electoral vote in both 2016 and 2020 under the state’s system of dividing electoral votes by congressional district.
Mills won comfortably in 2018 (51 percent to 43 percent over would-be LePage protégé Shawn Moody), and her 57 percent job-approval rating in a local poll last month made her the most popular elected official in the state (aided by the fact that newly reelected Republican senator Susan Collins lost big chunks of GOP support by voting for Trump’s conviction on impeachment charges in February). Maine’s record in COVID-19 vaccinations under Mills’s direction has been solid, but her success in unraveling many of LePage’s policies (especially his stubborn opposition to a Medicaid expansion, even after Maine voters repudiated his position in a referendum) has been a red flag to her predecessor. In his announcement, LePage attacked Mills for accepting lavish funding under federal COVID stimulus plans, saying, “We simply cannot continue to look to Washington, D.C., for bailouts, subsidies, or leadership.” But as Gabrielle Gurly noted in The American Prospect, that could be a tough sell: “How the Maine electorate responds to Republican anti-Washington messaging on wasteful government spending during the worst health crisis in American history will be an important indicator of the long-term durability of Trumpism.”
LePage may have two reasons to think he can make a comeback. First, like all Republicans, he figures to get a bit of a midterm tailwind from a national trend against the party controlling the White House, much as Mills probably did in 2018. And second, he may once again benefit from divided opposition, as Gurley explains:
Former state Sen. Tom Saviello, a Republican from the central Maine town of Wilton, is threatening an independent run to counter Mills’s and LePage’s support for the New England Clean Energy Connect Corridor, a Central Maine Power (CMP) project to build a transmission line through western Maine to funnel Quebec’s hydroelectric power to Massachusetts. Saviello calls it “a bad deal for Maine.”
Maine Democrats have tried to deal with the state’s tendency to support independent and minor-party candidates by instituting ranked-choice voting (which LePage and other Republicans, recognizing their own minority status in the state, have strongly opposed). But while RCV is in effect for all federal contests and for state primaries in Maine, it does not (thanks to a provision in the state constitution) apply to state executive-branch or legislative general elections.
Inevitably the Mills vs. LePage grudge match will be watched nationally as a barometer not only of a potential backlash to the Biden administration but as a harbinger for a 2024 Trump comeback. Sure, Trump has a lot of protégés who will be on the ballot in 2022, from Kristi Noem to Ron DeSantis to whatever MAGA howler emerges from a Senate Republican mud-wrestling bout in Ohio. But none of them so resembles the 45th president in brash nastiness and mendacity as much as LePage does. If he can slither back into Blaine House (the governor’s residence in Augusta) in 2023, who will tell Trump he can’t return to the White House two years later? Maine voters may want to think about that before heading to the polls next year.