AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Gov. Paul LePage is not yet officially running for his old seat, but he has been on something resembling a campaign trail recently, rallying faithful Republicans and visiting businesses under the radar while mapping out a return bid.
He is promising a “LePage 2.0.” Those who have heard him use the phrase take it to mean a calmer and issue-focused iteration of the former two-term governor. Democrats may scoff at such a rebranding after his chaotic eight-year tenure. His era ended with their party taking and keeping control of Augusta under Gov. Janet Mills, LePage’s stylistic antipode.
The uncharacteristically quiet beginning to LePage’s likely 2022 run is both a tacit acknowledgment that Maine’s political winds have shifted and a preview of how he will begin to prosecute a case against Mills. Even friends who think he has a solid chance of winning say too much of LePage’s old bombast may make Mills’ reelection bid easier.
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“I think he realizes that Maine people are focused on policy, on issues, and that’s where he’s got to be,” conservative radio host Ray Richardson said of LePage.
LePage has teased a campaign against Mills since before she succeeded him. Unlike him, she promised to heed a referendum to expand Medicaid in a campaign against his legacy in 2018. The expansion now covers 78,000 people, but her latest two-year budget proposal would increase spending by nearly $3 billion over LePage’s first budget inked in 2011.
Those issues are likely to frame any race. LePage registered to vote in Florida, where he has a home, on the day Mills was sworn into office two years ago. But he moved to Edgecomb last year and has continued to make radio appearances and speak at GOP events. He has been shoring up old alliances and traveling the state while plotting his return.
Ahead of a May county party fundraiser in Belfast, he visited window supplier Mathews Brothers Co. and potato processor Penobscot McCrum LLC. Brent Littlefield, his strategist, said LePage likes to hear about Mainers’ concerns and “what they think can be done to improve the state.”
The businesses did not respond to questions on the visits and Littlefield did not answer questions on what the beginning of a LePage run would look like. His launch is widely expected this summer as the Maine Republican Party has worked to clear a path for his nomination.
Katrina Smith, the chair of the Waldo County Republican Party, spent time with LePage at the fundraiser and said she found him “very laid back” but surprised at the stark pandemic needs facing the businesses he visited earlier. State Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who lunched with LePage days later at a barbecue restaurant in downtown Augusta, saw a “happy warrior.”
In his first term with Augusta under full Republican control, he shepherded through a large income tax cut that remains in effect. Buoyed by a strong national economy and tight state hiring practices, LePage left Maine’s finances in good shape when Mills took over.
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But even Republicans who note LePage’s achievements see his era as one of missed opportunities, particularly in the only two-year term in which Republicans had full control. LePage’s controversial comments dominated attention and he presided over a 2017 state shutdown while often going to war with Senate Republicans less likely to agree with him.
Bennett, a former state party chair, said he thinks the former governor has attained perspective on old battles and unfinished business, expecting LePage to focus heavily on fiscal issues. He and other Republicans have also hammered Mills on pandemic restrictions.
“I think now that he sees Gov. Mills undoing some of those changes and reforms that he led on, he sees that it’s always a work in progress, and take your wins and advance the ball as far as you can,” he said.
Plenty of the old LePage is still there. He aped former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election after President Joe Biden’s victory. Earlier in 2020, he backed three conservative insurgents who ran in primaries against three candidates backed by Maine Senate Republicans, including two incumbents. Each of those LePage-backed hopefuls lost.
But he is still the main force animating the Maine Republican Party. His endorsement was the main factor carrying former state Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon Falls through a three-way Republican primary in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District last year.
Allies of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins also praised LePage’s defense of the centrist Republican in her massive race with Democrat Sara Gideon last year, including at a campaign rally with then-Vice President Mike Pence. It was notable after he told supporters to urge Collins not to succeed him in 2017 following her work to uphold the Affordable Care Act. Earlier, he said she was “done in Maine” for not endorsing Trump.
“If Paul LePage runs for Governor, Senator Collins will support him,” Collins spokesperson Annie Clark said in a statement, showing firm GOP consolidation behind LePage.
Mills presents a stiff challenge as the first non-incumbent governor since 1966 to win a majority. That election was also the last time an incumbent governor was defeated here. No elected Maine governor has served non-consecutive terms since the 1840s. But LePage has never lost an election going back to his days on the Waterville City Council.
Little polling has emerged in the hypothetical race so far. A progressive group released a survey late last month showing Mills leading LePage comfortably. But Republicans are bullish, with one group supporting LePage touting a recent survey showing a dead heat.
LePage has also recast himself before. He benefited from good timing as a darling of the nascent Tea Party movement in 2010, then played down fights four years later behind the slogan, “Actions speak louder than words.” Democrats are previewing an uncomplicated strategy in their bid to prevent a second LePage era.
“After eight years of non-stop vitriol, a few months of Paul LePage attempting to soften his image won’t fool Maine people, and it’s not going to change what matters most: his destructive and harmful policies,” Maine Democratic Party Chair Drew Gattine said in a statement.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the chronology of former Gov. Paul LePage’s past criticisms of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.