AUGUSTA, Maine — Former two-term Republican Gov. Paul LePage filed with the state to kick off his long-awaited 2022 run against Gov. Janet Mills, officially beginning the race between the two political rivals.
It is an expected step for LePage, who battled often with the Democratic governor during his tenure in the Blaine House and hers as attorney general. After Mills won the 2018 race to succeed the term-limited LePage with the first majority win for a non-incumbent since 1966, the Republican immediately said he may run against her in next year’s election.
Mills has largely worked to overturn LePage’s legacy in office, implementing the voter-approved Medicaid expansion that he resisted. She and fellow Democrats have raised state spending without raising taxes under the governor’s 2018 campaign pledge, but this year has been marked by differences between Mills and progressives on issues from taxes to criminal justice.
LePage made his run official by filing with the Maine Ethics Commission on Thursday morning, a day after he launched a campaign website that teases a Monday announcement. While he has been loud about his intentions to run again, he has been quietly plotting his new campaign for much of the year as the Maine Republican Party has paved the way for his nomination.
He has been pitching himself privately as “LePage 2.0,” or a calmer and more issue-focused version. But Democrats scoff at the idea of a rebranding of the bombastic figure who dominated attention in Augusta with controversial remarks and presided over the state’s first government shutdown since 1991 four years ago.
It was a preview in many ways of the era of former President Donald Trump. LePage invited the comparisons of the two as one of the first big-name Republicans to endorse Trump in the 2016 primaries, saying he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.” But the former governor was first elected in 2010 behind a compelling life story far different from Trump’s, growing up in poverty and enduring abuse in Lewiston in a family with 18 kids.
LePage likely enters as an underdog. He has an enthusiastic base as a beloved figure in Maine’s conservative grassroots, but he has never been widely popular, topping out at a 47 percent approval rating in 2011 during his eight-year tenure. Mills has consistently been above that mark, registering at 57 percent in a recent Digital Research, Inc. poll. Democrats have widened a party registration edge over Republicans since his last race in 2014.
Mills looks to be staking her reelection bid largely on her response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Maine has seen one of the lowest case rates among states and one of the highest vaccination rates. Her side is expected to highlight LePage-era cuts at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which entered the pandemic with 56 more staffers than when Mills took over.
LePage and other Republicans have hit Mills’ response as heavy-handed and the former governor is expected to focus on the needs of businesses coming out of the pandemic during his run. His political group has opposed Mills’ efforts to open the Gulf of Maine to offshore wind with plans to put a test array in federal waters 20 to 40 miles offshore. It prompted an outcry from fishermen, leading Mills to push back the application process and advance a 10-year moratorium on projects in state waters.
History is against LePage. No Maine governor has been defeated for reelection since that 1966 race and no elected governor has won a non-consecutive term since the 1840s. The last two-term governor who tried to return, Democrat Joe Brennan, lost two consecutive gubernatorial races in 1990 and 1994 and another for U.S. Senate in 1996. But the former governor has never lost an election going back to his days on the Waterville City Council.
Any race between LePage and Mills could be complicated by a third candidate, since Maine’s ranked-choice voting system is not in effect for state general elections. The former governor won in 2010 and 2014 with independent Eliot Cutler running both times, nearly beating him in the first run and fading to a distant third place in the second.
LePage’s move to officially kick off his run came a day after he launched a campaign website that teases a Monday announcement. He may not have to disclose his initial donors until January because he filed just after a state campaign finance deadline.