AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage spent weeks away from Augusta in February and March, piling up public appearances in Washington, D.C., national conservative media exposure and rumors about whether he’ll finish his second term as Maine’s governor.

While he was publicly focused on trying to influence debate about congressional Republicans’ plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, LePage’s foray into national politics — and the timing, 20 months before a major election — bears the hallmarks of a politician who is quietly testing the waters for his next venture.

Speculation has abounded for years about whether LePage will leave the Blaine House early. Although his staff has called that chatter “juicy rumors and false innuendo,” the governor has often fueled speculation with mixed messages about his plans.

He said during his first term that he was considering a run for Congress, and he has stated multiple times that he might try to unseat independent U.S. Sen. Angus King in the 2018. Embroiled in controversy amid calls for his resignation over his harsh comments to a Democratic lawmaker in August 2016, LePage said he was “looking at all of the options.”

He has also, at times, sounded like he isn’t going anywhere until after term limits push him out of the Blaine House in January 2019. Earlier this month, he dismissed rumors about whether he’s after a job in the Trump administration as “wishful thinking on the parts of my adversaries.” He also said as recently as November 2016 that “I was elected governor of the state of Maine, and I intend to see it through.”

Dennis Bailey, a campaign strategist who has worked for mostly Democrats and was communications director for King when he was governor, said LePage has the look of a guy with handlers trying to polish his image.

“He’s good about keeping the guessing game going,” Bailey said. “That’s a good approach no matter what you’re planning next. Keep them guessing.”

What does he want?

Opportunities are ripe, and LePage has paid his dues. The switch of presidential power from Democrat to Republican means there are hundreds of positions to fill with conservatives such as LePage. LePage was an early and aggressive Trump endorser at a time when most Republicans were shunning the would-be president, and he was there to prime the crowds during some of Trump’s Maine campaign stops. That sort of support during a bruising campaign has yielded rewards as long as there have been elections.

As one of the first elected Republicans to endorse Trump, LePage has political capital. He’s using it to try to steer Trump, whose political ideology has shifted often, to advance policies that reflect the governor’s bedrock conservative principles. By granting interviews to Breitbart, Laura Ingraham, Fox News and other conservative outlets, LePage has cast his voice beyond Maine to rally a core constituency — the roughly 40 percent of voters who identify as conservative — to pressure Trump to make government reflect their values.

Payback from Trump might not come in the form of a federal job or ambassadorship, which LePage has said appeals to him, but in policies or decisions that allow LePage to cement his legacy in Maine or nationally as a conservative reformer.

There is a populist uprising on which to capitalize. LePage’s two elections and Trump’s anti-government campaign to the presidency indicate that the key purple segment of the electorate that’s not hard right or hard left is gravitating toward outsider candidates who promise to tear down establishment institutions and push the political envelope. LePage is just that kind of candidate — though the fact that Trump and Republicans can no longer claim the “outsider” title puts them in the crosshairs.

With history showing that a midterm congressional election swing toward Democrats in 2018 is a real possibility, conservatives such as LePage have a sense of urgency to promoting their agenda. Frustrated by the slow, deliberative pace of the legislative process — even when it is shepherded by Republicans — they’ve assigned themselves to be the voices of regular people frustrated by government inaction.

For now, LePage’s solidly conservative accomplishments in Maine — reducing welfare rolls, paying off debt — and storybook life story make him a key player in that effort, attracting attention well beyond Maine, according to Tarren Bragdon, a conservative activist who led LePage’s transition team in 2010 and has worked with him on policy for years.

“People are very impressed and moved by the governor’s own life story and by his track record in Maine. They’re interested in hearing what he has to say,” said Bragdon, who added that the governor’s recent visits to Washington were about policy, not posturing. “Gov. LePage has a lot of weight in the federal debate. Not just because he’s using his bully pulpit but because he can point to his accomplishments.”

LePage’s people say all of this hubbub is about LePage’s pursuit of policy goals. In this case, his goals include pushing congressional Republicans’ plan for replacing Obamacare more conservative by ending incentives for Medicaid expansion, among other items. Bragdon and Brent Littlefield, LePage’s political strategist, say it’s as simple as that.

“[LePage’s visits to Washington] are just policy based,” Littlefield said. “Whenever you have a change in the administration, there’s going to be more opportunities for policy changes.”

But LePage will soon be a lame duck governor. In some ways, the governor’s biennial budget proposal, which is pending in the Legislature, is his last, biggest chance to further his agenda. He is free to introduce bills to the Legislature at any time, but last year’s return of a Democratic majority to the House of Representatives cemented the fact that the opposing party can block any bill it doesn’t like. Those maneuvers have frustrated LePage to extremes in the past; he has voiced disgust in lawmakers for opposing him on everything from education and energy reforms to fighting the drug addiction crisis.

The debate over the state budget will be over by the end of June — barring an impasse that would shut down state government — which could present some choices for LePage. After a budget passes, he said last week, “I can start looking, and then my wife and I will start talking about what we want to do when we grow up.”

Political calculus

Political strategists are taking notice of LePage’s recent exposure on conservative media. In the past few weeks, LePage has appeared in prime slots on Fox and Friends, Your World Cavuto and Breitbart News, among others, and influential radio hosts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have discussed Maine’s governor in glowing terms.

Vic Berardelli, a retired conservative political consultant from Newburgh, said exposure like that is not easy to secure and is usually orchestrated.

“National exposure in conservative media is often the first step of attracting political donors from around the country,” Berardelli said. “It’s well orchestrated. … It looks like he’s being groomed, that somebody is coaching him.”

Democrats who have underestimated LePage for years continue to look for vulnerabilities. The party regained control of the Legislature in 2012 with a campaign built on attacks against LePage, but a similar effort failed in 2014, when he won re-election and Republicans seized control of the Maine Senate.

His “guessing game” continues to keep Democrats occupied, with focus now on whether he will seek another elective office or a high-level job in the Trump administration.

“A confirmation hearing would be almost unwinnable for him,” said Matt McTighe, a Democratic activist and strategist who led Democrat Mike Michaud’s unsuccessful campaign against LePage in 2014. “It’s just so hard to imagine that there’s any job out there that he could get confirmation for.”

McTighe said Democrats are monitoring the possibility that LePage is planning a run against King or possibly Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st Congressional District.

“Right now would be the right time to be coming down to Washington and kissing the rings of donors if you’re looking at a 2018 election,” McTighe said. “But only LePage knows what LePage’s motives and intentions are.”

LePage is doing what he does best but on a bigger stage. Retail politics at the local level propelled LePage to two terms in the Blaine House. He connects with people personally at meetings of business groups, conservative gatherings and job-site visits, cementing support among voters frustrated by bureaucracy while not wasting time trying to convince those with whom he disagrees. Despite serving as Maine’s chief executive since 2011, he still manages to assign blame for that frustration to his political foes, mostly Democrats and legislators in general. In doing so, he has kept Democrats largely on the defensive.

In the past two months, he’s taken that strategy to the national level.

With an ideologically fractured national electorate, LePage’s more prominent profile in the conservative media universe bears watching as a barometer of the conservative movement’s and Trump’s abilities to hold onto their images as populist reformers.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.