LISBON, Maine — Former Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew announced a 2018 run for governor Tuesday, becoming the first well-known Republican to enter the race to replace the term-limited Gov. Paul LePage.

A former Democrat and lobbyist, Mayhew’s career changed sharply in 2011 when she took the administration post that she left in late May, becoming the face of the Republican governor’s aggressive welfare agenda and the administrator most identified with him.

“As I left the department, and as I have thought about all we have accomplished, I know we have worked too hard to see what we have done undone,” she said Tuesday morning on WVOM, a Bangor radio station. “So today, I announce my candidacy to be the next governor of the state of Maine.”

It was an expected move from Mayhew, 52, of South China, who has been quietly and informally campaigning in Republican circles to succeed LePage for years and has cast herself as a practical reformer of Maine’s welfare system, often drawing attention to regular Medicaid shortfalls that ended during her tenure.

She followed her Tuesday radio announcements with a morning speech at Dingley Press in Lisbon, saying the LePage administration has “the right priorities,” but warning that “there are so many people who want to undo what we’ve done” and “tax you and take your hard-earned money to pay for the cost of growing government.”

Those detractors, however, see a legacy of cuts and austerity. In a statement, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett called Mayhew “a single-issue candidate” and said “her approach to that issue has proved a total failure.”

She and LePage opposed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, saying it could bust Maine’s budget. Changes enacted during her tenure culled 67,000 from the Medicaid rolls between 2011 and 2015, a period of time during which the share of people in poverty increased, according to Census data. The number of children in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program went from more than 25,000 in early 2011 to less than 7,700 in May.

In a Republican primary, Mayhew should be able to lay claim to LePage’s welfare agenda, a signature issue for the party’s grass-roots that aided him to re-election in 2014. But she’ll have to widen a profile that so far has been limited to the scope of her former department.

Her personal positions on social issues such as abortion, for example, aren’t in the public record. She was a lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association before taking over as LePage’s choice to lead an agency that accounts for more than a third of state spending.

Mayhew is also a former Democrat who only became a Republican in March 2014. On Tuesday, she said she was a Democrat only because her late father was one. However, she managed Patrick McGowan’s 1990 congressional campaign against Republican Olympia Snowe, and when pressed on that she said she’s “changed” and “grown.”

Mayhew has begun the work to widen her image in frequent appearances with conservative groups. On Sunday, she spoke at a Falmouth rally in opposition to Maine’s voter-approved surtax on high earners.

Matthew Gagnon, CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which co-sponsored that rally, said many of the conservatives she’s wooing are “impressed” with her and her work but said “she still has a lot of introduction to be doing with those voters at the same time.”

“I think her job in the election is going to be figuring out exactly what else to talk about and whether or not that perfectly matches the conservative base,” he said. “We still have a lot to hear from her, I think.”

Independent Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes of Buckfield and Democrats Adam Cote of Sanford and Betsy Sweet of Hallowell are the only other declared 2018 gubernatorial candidates who are well-known in political circles. Republican Deril Stubenrod of Clinton, Democrat Patrick Eisenhart of Augusta and Libertarian Richard Light of Liberty have also filed.

But U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who is considering a run, hangs over the Republican field. The popular senator came out with qualified support for Medicaid expansion in Maine for the first time this weekend. Talking to reporters after her speech, Mayhew drew a stark line between them.

“It is concerning to me that she would come out and endorse a plan without understanding the challenges of our state budget, the impact of the cost of expanding Medicaid and what that will jeopardize in terms of our priorities,” she said.

BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...