AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s top legislative Republicans are navigating what promises to be a difficult session in 2018, the last under Gov. Paul LePage, with one big and new complication: They’re running against each other to replace him.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport kicked off the legislative session on Wednesday as three of the five Republicans running to succeed the term-limited governor.
It comes amid a rift between the chambers, six months after a state government shutdown defined by jousting that pitted LePage and his House allies against Senate Republicans and Democrats over dueling deals.
The Senate leaders say they’ll keep the session free of campaigning, but it’s putting members in interesting spots. Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, supports Mason, is running to replace him in the Thibodeau-led battle to keep the Senate and is a Fredette ally on the budget committee.
“Will it add a dynamic to the Legislature?” Timberlake said of the leaders’ runs. “I don’t see how it doesn’t.”
The three leaders’ votes, comments and decisions in Augusta will face heavy scrutiny as they look to woo different sections of a primary electorate that is smitten with LePage. One poll last year pegged his approval rating among Republicans at 79 percent.
They’re running against two LePage-linked hopefuls. Gorham businessman Shawn Moody hired the governor’s strategist and his daughter. Former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of South China was the governor’s top lieutenant on welfare issues.
When asked about the interplay between the three leaders on Wednesday, Fredette said they “have a job to do,” then noted that he and House Republicans “have been aligned with the governor” lately and “the Senate Republicans have been in a different place.”
“I guess if they decide they need to move to the right because they need to win a primary, welcome to the show,” Fredette said of Thibodeau and Mason.
Thibodeau shot back by noting that Senate Republicans won back-to-back majorities in their chamber in 2014 and 2016. Fredette only mustered minorities. Mason said “it’s not unusual that the House leader” before trailing off and adding, “I’m not saying a word.”
Even the senators have taken different tacks. Fredette and Mason entered the race officially in September, while Thibodeau waited until just after Collins’ announcement. The Senate president said he hasn’t yet asked for senators’ endorsements, but Mason was making calls before U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said she wouldn’t run for the nomination in October.
In the Senate, Thibodeau said “I’ll be very disappointed” if observers detect differences in how the chamber is run, adding that he and Mason are “friends” with a “job to do.”
“There will be plenty of time in the campaign to make the case that I’m the most qualified individual to lead our state going forward, but that time is not now,” Thibodeau said.
Mason said he doesn’t anticipate the contest being a problem in Augusta, saying “I’m going to vote how I’ve always voted and let the chips fall where they may.”
But their campaigns could have ripple effects. Thibodeau, Mason and Fredette won leadership positions due in large part to their work on other legislators’ campaigns.
Now, the 2018 fight to keep the Senate majority will be headed up in large part by Assistant Majority Leader Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, Fredette’s House caucus whip for two terms, is running for Senate.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, is a Thibodeau supporter, but he said all of leaders running for governor should let others assume their posts because he remembers the 2012 elections, where the three Senate Republican leaders were running for higher offices and Democrats won.
Saviello, a moderate and former Democrat, said the three will face competing pressures between tacking hard enough to the right to win a primary and being moderate enough to win the general election and “there are going to be cameras on these guys every day.”
“And every day, if they find the jewel that they can use out there against them, it’ll be in the next commercial on TV,” he said, “maybe not in the primary, but in the general election.”
A race with so many influential lawmakers is rare in recent Maine political history. In 2012, all three of Maine’s constitutional officers — the secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general — ran in a U.S. Senate primary, but they all had reasonably autonomous offices.
The closest parallel may be the 1994 governor’s race, when four sitting Republican legislators ran against each other, including then-Senate Minority Leader Pamela Cahill and Charlie Webster, who was a former leader alongside her and a future state party chairman.
Cahill, now a lobbyist who lives in Woolwich, finished last in the eight-way primary won by Collins. She said she and Webster agreed to “get the legislative session over with before we became archenemies.”
“I think these folks have enough integrity to know that they could only damage their chances if the Legislature fails to do their jobs,” she said.
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