Gov. Paul LePage looks to be leading a Republican civil war against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ 2018 gubernatorial bid before anyone’s sure she’ll declare one and as she sits at the center of the national health care debate.
The governor railed against the moderate Republican senator at a Saturday pig roast put on by the Somerset County Republican Committee in Canaan, where an attendee said LePage repeatedly mentioned working to defeat Collins if she runs for governor next year.
It came after her Friday vote against Republicans’ latest plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. She was one of three Senate Republicans to cast key votes rejecting it, putting one of the party’s major goals in jeopardy.
President Donald Trump tweeted that opponents “let the American people down,” but Collins was pictured returning to the Bangor airport to applause in a waiting area. In a Sunday interview with CNN, she called it “heartwarming and affirming.”
But Collins is also considering a Blaine House run in 2018 and has said she’d make a decision on running by the fall. Few in Maine politics are certain she’ll declare one besides LePage, who said in a Thursday radio interview that he thinks she’s planning on it.
“If the Republican base — which is the 290,000 people that voted for me (in his 2014 re-election) — tell her, ‘We don’t want you; you’re not winning the primary,’ she’ll back down,” he said in a video provided by the attendee at the Canaan event under conditions of anonymity.
That line got some applause from the crowd of Republican diehards who love LePage, whose political ascent began with a 2010 primary win over six opponents. But years of polling data indicate that his push at Collins might not resonate much outside his sphere of loyal conservative supporters.
LePage, who scored an approval rating of 47 percent in the latest round of state-by-state polling from Morning Consult, has a far more limited base than Collins, who may be Maine’s most popular politician, regularly registering approval ratings in the mid- to high-60s. A 2014 poll during her last re-election campaign saw her pulling more support from Democrats than from Republicans.
But Collins has always maintained relationships to party loyalists by helping lower-level politicians win elections. LePage is no exception to that.
Days before the 2014 election where both were up for re-election, Collins showed up at LePage’s Blaine House food drive, was greeted with a hug and said she had unwavering support for the governor and praised him for “his emphasis on jobs and the economy.”
Their relationship has soured since the 2016 election. LePage became an early Trump endorser in February 2016, while Collins said she wouldn’t support Trump that August. After Trump won Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and the election, he said she was “done in Maine.”
In April, Collins gave a radio interview where she weighed her options for 2018, saying her goal would be to “heal the state” if she ran, a likely jab at LePage’s divisive tenure. After that, LePage said he didn’t know her well enough to know whether she’d be a good governor.
LePage’s former health and human services commissioner, Mary Mayhew of South China, is the only Republican in the gubernatorial race so far.
Mayhew led LePage’s opposition to Medicaid expansion, while Collins suggested in June that Maine consider following Indiana’s conservative approach to expansion under the federal health care law. Mayhew was in Washington ear li er this month pushing for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
LePage’s position on various Republican Obamacare repeal efforts changed alongside their proposals. In March, he opposed a House bill for not going far enough in scaling back the current law, but he supported it after changes were made, including a quicker Medicaid expansion phase-out.
He also told reporters at the White House in June that he opposed a Senate bill because it didn’t go far enough. Later that day, he released a statement saying he generally supported repeal efforts. That bill failed and was different than the “skinny repeal” bill considered in the key vote Friday.
Mayhew and Collins could be the official foils if the senator gets in, but as he always seems to be in Maine politics, LePage will be front and center in any battle that materializes.
This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.