AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Gov. Paul LePage told the state Republican convention on Saturday he would “fix the broken budget” if he ousts Gov. Janet Mills in the November election, avoiding thorny social issues that marked the first day of the meeting.
The former two-term governor was the star of the two-day party convention that was set to conclude on Saturday afternoon at the Augusta Civic Center. It was best read as a show of unity for LePage in the approach to his heavyweight matchup with the Democratic governor.
Republicans look poised for a good year nationally in a midterm election for President Joe Biden, who is struggling with low approval ratings while he and Democrats keep only narrow control of Congress. In Maine, Republicans are eyeing gains in the Democratic-led Legislature.
It will be hard to oust Mills. LePage is trying to oust an incumbent Maine governor for the first time since 1966. No chief executive has retaken the office here since the 1840s. While the governor’s approval rating as measured by Morning Consult has fallen in the last year, it stood in polling released Thursday at 53 percent, higher than any mark LePage achieved in office.
The current governor and fellow Democrats swept into control of Augusta in 2018, mirroring the two-year Republican takeover fronted by LePage eight years earlier. Among Mills’ first moves were to implement voter-approved Medicaid expansion, which LePage opposed and stalled, and pass a budget sharply increasing spending but holding the line on income taxes.
Since then, Republicans have warned that these increases could lead to budget trouble in the future. That has not happened with a massive wave of federal aid leading to surpluses that have allowed Mills and the Legislature to pass a $1.2 billion spending package in April that is dominated by $850 relief payments to 857,000 Mainers.
LePage has criticized that provision even though it originated with a Republican demand and derided the rosy financial situation as “funny money” from the federal government.
“We need a governor who knows how to balance the books and fix the broken budget,” LePage told the convention crowd on Saturday.
LePage broke little new ground in a roughly 35-minute speech, redoubling past pledges to phase out Maine’s income tax and push for a voter identification law. He assailed Mills’ COVID-19 response on multiple fronts, although a recent study from conservative economists gave Maine high marks based on health, economic and education measures.
He said he will push for health care workers who lost jobs under Mills’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate to be rehired with back pay, although he has not said who would foot the bill. He said Maine’s recovery from the pandemic was last among states, although it was a reference to just one metric — improvement in unemployment rates from 2020 to 2021.
LePage avoided social issues in his speech, which came one day after state Republicans adopted a platform that called for sweeping limits on discussing sex and LGBTQ issues in schools. Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Caratunk selectman Liz Caruso, who are squaring off for the right to face Democratic Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District, noted their anti-abortion stance in their Saturday speeches.
The platform debate gave Democrats some ammunition in a state where party registration, driven by population growth in southern Maine, has trended in their direction since LePage’s last campaign in 2014.
“It is imperative that we don’t allow Paul LePage and other Republicans to let their hateful agenda govern Maine,” House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said in a statement.