Gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, speaks at the Republican Convention in Augusta, May 5, 2018. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Every Sunday, Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason is campaigning in a church. It’s a key part of an unorthodox campaign that could get him the Republican gubernatorial nomination and make him Maine’s youngest elected governor.

Mason, 32, of Lisbon Falls is one of four Republicans running to replace the term-limited Gov. Paul LePage. After voting against public campaign financing in the Legislature, he is using Maine’s taxpayer-funded campaign system to fund his campaign. He is also the Republican who most differentiates himself from LePage, who led a Republican resurgence in 2010 with a combative style that often drew national criticism but that galvanized Maine Republicans.

“Somebody needed to come in and shake up the norm, and he did that and we’ve seen some good results from that,” Mason said of the governor. “What I think we need now is an experienced, steady hand at the till, and I believe that’s what I bring.”

Mason’s political resume is longer than his private one. His political career has been a product of a tight evangelical base of supporters, strong fundraising, energetic campaign work and a knack for being in right places at right times and avoiding wrong places at wrong times.

He beat a Democratic incumbent in the 2010 wave election that swept LePage into office and majorities of Republicans into both legislative chambers, narrowly won re-election two years later and became Senate majority leader in 2014 behind a revved-up political operation.

During his tenure in the Senate’s second-ranking role, Republicans have aligned with Democrats against Gov. Paul LePage and House Republicans in two rough budget fights, including the one last year that led to Maine’s first state shutdown in a generation.

Both Mason and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, are more conservative than their caucus, but their roles have put them at odds with LePage. During a 2015 budget fight, the governor’s political operation — run by his daughter — sent robocalls into their districts saying they were “working behind the scenes with liberal Democrats.”

At first, Mason and all Senate Republicans voted for that budget. After that period of urging from conservatives, he and eight other Republicans voted against overriding LePage’s veto, though it passed. He stepped back from 2017 negotiations, but he supported Thibodeau and his caucus.

Thibodeau deals with budget matters, and Mason deals with others, including the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. He and his Democratic co-chairman ran a public relations campaign against a controversial developer’s 2017 bid for a York casino that failed miserably at the ballot box that year.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, a U.S. Senate candidate and health panel co-chair, said he has worked with Mason more than other leaders on those issues. Brakey, 29, said Mason’s age “hasn’t tempered his ability to earn respect from people decades older than him.”

Politically, Mason is dynamic. His political action committee pumped more than $178,000 into state politics from 2011 to 2017, with more than 70 percent of that money coming from commercial sources and three large donors — Bob and Gary Bahre, who owned a New Hampshire NASCAR track and part of Oxford Casino, and businesswoman Linda Bean.

That operation’s largest product has been a paid internship program during the 2014 and 2016 campaign cycles with Mason’s alma mater, Pensacola Christian College in Florida. Mason said 50 students have gone through it, and the program was widely credited with helping Republicans take back the Maine Senate from Democrats in 2014.

He was a public face of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential caucus victory in Maine over Donald Trump, but quickly jumped aboard for Trump and introduced him at a Lisbon rally days before Trump’s electoral victory, though quieter operatives were crucial to both efforts.

Mason is perhaps the most classic social conservative in the race, which he attributes to his evangelical upbringing. He opposes abortion in every instance except to save the life of a mother. When asked why he opposes it in the rare cases of rape or incest, he said anti-abortion advocates must be consistent on the issue and it is “still a life.”

His experience outside of politics is a campaign hurdle. Joe Bruno, a longtime Maine GOP activist who is now treasurer for Republican businessman Shawn Moody’s gubernatorial campaign, said in an April radio interview that Mason has “never really held a job.” He held an administrative role with a now-defunct junior hockey team in Lewiston during his first legislative run and says he has always worked full time while in the Legislature.

People who have served with Mason give brief answers when asked to relate his age and experience to the governor’s job. Thibodeau, the Senate president, said he “has certainly done a good job as a state senator,” and moderate Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he “sure has an impressive body of work for a 32-year-old.”

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, a moderate who has often clashed with LePage and sometimes broken with Mason on key Senate votes, said he’ll likely back Mason in June and Attorney General Janet Mills — a friend — in November if she gets the Democratic nod. He called Mason “a fine young man” but veered away from discussing his leadership skills.

“He’s the leader of our caucus because he’s helped get us elected,” Saviello said. “Personally, I think he would be a better candidate in the future, but he got the signatures and I wish him the best of luck.”

But Christie-Lee McNally, who ran Trump’s Maine campaign and worked on Mason’s first campaign when she was executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said a main difference between Mason and LePage is that the former politician is “not afraid to surround himself with people who are smarter than him.”

“I think he’s ready,” said former state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a Mason supporter, “and I guess the question is whether the people think he’s ready.”

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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...