Former Gov. Paul LePage (left) and Gov. Janet Mills. Credit: BDN composite photo

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Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

It is the race that I think both of them secretly wanted to run.

Throughout most of Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure in office, then-Attorney General Janet Mills was probably his biggest foil. Even among disputes with figures like Sara Gideon, Mark Eves, Troy Jackson and others, it was always Mills that seemed to inspire the fiercest reaction in LePage. Whether it was disputes over representation of the administration in court cases, or just their divergent views on a variety of issues, the back and forth between the two figures was enduring.

For Mills, too, it was always LePage that got to her. The aforementioned conflicts during her predecessor’s tenure were enough evidence of that, but it was further proved by the campaign she waged to succeed him in 2018. In that race, her opponent was Shawn Moody, but we could all be forgiven for thinking it was actually LePage, with as often as she and others tried to portray Moody as a LePage redux.

All things considered, I think it is safe to say that LePage would have always preferred to run against and beat Janet Mills, rather than Libby Mitchell and Mike Michaud. Likewise, Mills would have much rather have actually run against and beat LePage rather than Moody.

Well, they’re both going to get what I think they want in 2022, because that’s the race we are about to live through. If you thought Susan Collins versus Sara Gideon was a hotly contested race, get ready for something even hotter.

But what will be the narrative of the race?

Considering the question today, it is easy to think that we are going to be seeing a relitigation of the actions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically a debate about whether or not the choices made by Mills were decisions that kept us safe, or whether they were destructive overreactions that harmed the state.

Indeed, that will be a topic that the candidates debate, and deservedly so. Maine needs to have a prolonged conversation about emergency powers, representative governance, and needs to ask itself what it feels is the appropriate push and pull between human liberty and restrictions of those liberties in emergencies.

But as much as that debate is needed, I don’t think it ends up being the primary focus of either campaign. By November of 2022, the pandemic will be nearly two years in the rearview mirror and the public’s tolerance for continuing to talk about it will likely be low. Mills will certainly feature her “I kept you safe” argument frequently in debates and campaign commercials, but I don’t think it goes much further than that.

Instead, I expect the real debate in this race to boil down to state finances and the economy. That is certainly where the race will drift to if LePage is smart, as it is the best argument he has in his toolbox.

Put simply, during the LePage administration decades of irresponsible growth in government spending and expansion of government programs was reversed. Budgets were more controlled, spending was reasonable, finances were effectively managed and state government was restrained.

By contrast, since Mills became governor we have been treated to the same overspending that had taken place prior to LePage’s tenure, only this time it was reinforced and made very much worse by the huge influx of federal money that Mills’ and her allies have been appropriating for the last year.

Mills will make the case that she is “investing” in Maine, and it is actually LePage who made the bad decisions by supposedly “cutting” state government “to the bone” which “left the cupboard bare,” among other silly metaphors that have no connection to truth.

There are already indications that LePage wants the campaign to be fought on this ground. In a Facebook message, LePage said it himself, “We must work toward building a better future based on individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, and an economy which empowers everyone including our rural communities.”

Seems pretty clear to me, and expect it to be a point he hammers going forward. In the end, we’ll end up learning a lot about Maine voters and their attitude about spending. Do they fall for the siren song of spending, government growth and high taxes? Or do they once again make a statement demanding fiscal sanity? Only time will tell us.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...