Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage receives a standing ovation from the audience at the 137th University of Maine at Fort Kent commencement exercises on Saturday in Fort Kent. The University of Maine System board of trustees presented LePage with an honorary degree in appreciation of his efforts as governor to support education as governor. Credit: Jessica Potila | SJVT

AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage teased a run against his successor in the strongest terms yet so far on Wednesday, telling a radio host he will return to Maine from Florida and “challenge Janet Mills or the Democratic Party in 2022.”

The Republican has toyed publicly with running against Mills since before he left the Blaine House after Mills won the 2018 election to succeed him behind a Democratic wave. Before that same election, he hemmed and hawed before declining a run against U.S. Sen. Angus King.

LePage has been relatively consistent when discussing 2022 in interviews with friendly talk radio hosts since then, often saying he intends to run against the Democratic governor if his “health is there” or if he can fully convince his wife, Ann, to sign off on the idea.

In a Wednesday interview with conservative radio host Howie Carr, he said he would return to Maine from Florida next month and declare residency in the state “not to leave anymore.” He registered to vote in the Sunshine State on the day Mills was inaugurated early last year.

He hammered Mills’ response to the coronavirus in the interview, saying she “ought to resign” over a plan announced Tuesday that would begin to reopen businesses shut down in a bid to slow the virus on Friday but would keep restrictions on restaurants and hotels into the summer.

LePage has advocated for opening businesses in rural areas immediately and he said the state could be in worse shape by the next election than it was when he took office in 2011 after the Great Recession in a nod to projections that Maine could face an unprecedented budget crisis due to the virus.

“Yes, I am going to challenge Janet Mills or the Democratic Party in 2022 because in 2022, the state’s going to be worse off than when I took over in 2010 and I do believe I have the skill set to fix it,” he said.

LePage strategist Brent Littlefield said the former governor has indicated that he would follow Mills’ order to self-isolate for 14 days when he returns to Maine. He has not formally filed to run for governor. A normal campaign would kick off in earnest in the middle of next year.

LePage and Mills often feuded when the current governor was attorney general for the final six years of his tenure. The Democrat took office behind a promise to reverse much of LePage’s legacy, including by implementing voter-approved and court-ordered Medicaid expansion that the Republican repeatedly vetoed and then slow-walked.

Republicans including LePage also voiced opposition to the level of spending in a two-year budget worth nearly $8 billion signed by Mills last year. The state’s response to the virus drew a 74 percent approval rating in a survey released in April by Critical Insights, but anxiety over virus restrictions has built among some officials in rural Maine since then.

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...