Paul LePage delivers his final State of the State address before a joint session of the Maine Legislature in Augusta in this Feb. 13, 2018, file photo.

AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s no surprise former Maine Gov. Paul LePage did something unconventional, but he was uncharacteristically quiet in giving a former legislator his weighty backing in a wide-open Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District.

Former state Rep. Dale Crafts announced LePage’s endorsement in kicking off his 2020 candidacy for the seat held by U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, this month. That backing, however, wasn’t accompanied by a statement from the former governor for eight days.

LePage also had never endorsed — at least officially — in a contested primary for a major Maine office during his tenure as governor. The lag led some observers to wonder if was a miscommunication. LePage and his political operatives didn’t respond to questions until he cleared things up in a Friday tweet.

“He is an experienced, conservative legislator who served four terms in the Maine House of Representatives,” LePage wrote of Crafts. “He will serve the people of Maine well.”

It’s unclear what role LePage will play in the race, but his early backing could give Crafts an instant shot of credibility with donors and party activists unfamiliar with him. The endorsement may be the biggest one a Republican can get in a primary. LePage remains beloved in his party.

A 2017 poll found the former governor had 79 percent approval among Maine Republicans. A survey this month from a Democratic firm found he would lead U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in a hypothetical 2020 primary by more than 30 percentage points. (He has endorsed Collins.)

It also could be seen as a slight to the other two candidates, particularly Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s longtime spokeswoman in the governor’s office. The libertarian-leaning former state Sen. Eric Brakey, the 2018 Republican U.S. Senate nominee, kicked off his run in July.

Crafts and LePage have a history. During the 2010 gubernatorial primary that LePage won as a Waterville mayor with few Augusta connections, Crafts heard him speak at a Lisbon event and later organized a group of approximately 30 legislators who endorsed LePage.

Crafts had been considering the race since the summer. In an interview, he said LePage called him in late September and said while he backed Crafts, he wanted to wait until making an endorsement. At the time, Crafts said former Attorney General Bill Schneider was considering a run that he later ruled out. Schneider didn’t respond to a Sunday message seeking comment.

Ahead of his October kickoff, Crafts said LePage gave him permission to use the endorsement and that the public statement was delayed because of a family emergency.

“Once it got down to the three of us, he was ready to get on board,” Crafts said.

Crafts, who has founded several businesses, shares a private-sector background with LePage that the former governor has seemed to value when evaluating candidates. His political strategist and daughter ran the campaign of businessman Shawn Moody, who cruised to the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2018.

LePage never officially endorsed in that race, though he was seen as supportive behind the scenes and there were several winks and nods other than the campaign staff, including a prominent speech at the Republican state convention by then-first lady Ann LePage.

In a statement, Brakey said he has tremendous respect for LePage and he was “his biggest ally in the Maine Senate,” but he also said the former governor is “one voice among many” in the party. Brakey said his campaign will win because it is supported by “thousands of grassroots Maine people.”

Bennett was circumspect about LePage when she was interviewed on her campaign kickoff day, telling the Bangor Daily News that he was a “mentor,” that her first call was to him when she decided to run and she was confident she “will have his support” by the end of the primary.

In Sunday text messages, she highlighted that wording, saying it meant she would have his support “when it’s over and I win,” adding that she’s “focused on speaking with and meeting voters.” Then she referred to her history defending LePage in controversies big and small.

“When I was press secretary nothing surprised me and this didn’t either,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t impact how I move forward.”

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...