Former Gov. Paul LePage (center) and former Rep. Bruce Poliquin (right) talk with Nelson Jewell of Levant after pumping his gas at Dysart's on Broadway in Bangor during a campaign stop on May 18, 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Supreme Court’s Friday move to overturn Roe v. Wade was a top goal of the conservative legal movement for nearly 50 years. While Maine Republicans have grown more stridently anti-abortion in recent years, their reaction was muted.

Maine has long polled as one of the states most favorable to abortion rights. In 1994, Republican Gov. John McKernan worked with allies in both parties to codify federal protections that are now stripped. In recent years, Roe and a smaller but lingering level of bipartisan agreement have kept the abortion from top-tier Augusta debates.

With control of abortion now in the hands of states after the election-year decision, Republicans are showing some shyness. Anti-abortion standard-bearers are vague on new limits they would support. Insiders want to keep the focus on economic issues that have positioned Republicans for gains here and nationally in November.

After the Roe decision, Maine Republican Party Chair Demi Kouzounas released a statement noting a personal anti-abortion stance but noting “some who are upset and some who are excited right now” and saying her party’s focus is on the economy.

Behind the scenes about an hour after the ruling came down, the party emailed a memo to candidates urging them to stay on track and saying Democrats would “try to turn the issue to abortion so they can use it to drive up fundraising and energy and distract the media.”

“I’d remind you that [the abortion] debate has been going on for a long time and will certainly continue, but right now, the voters we need to win are focused on the economy, record inflation, and out-of-control gas and grocery prices,” Jason Savage, the party’s executive director, wrote.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills addresses a large crowd on the steps of Portland City Hall on Friday, June 24, 2022, after the U.S. Supreme court overturned Roe v. Wade. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

It contrasted with an aggressive approach from Democrats in control of Augusta. Gov. Janet Mills delivered a Friday morning statement, then a self-shot video from her campaign and an evening speech at a Portland rally vowing to shield abortion rights. Vulnerable U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District said he would continue work to enshrine Roe’s protections.

Their Republican opponents, former Gov. Paul LePage and former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, did little to build on past positions. Both have anti-abortion records, although the former congressman has leaned on the issue more than LePage in the past, winning a 2014 primary for his seat over a pro-abortion rights candidate.

LePage’s campaign only pointed reporters back to a May statement on a leaked draft decision, while Poliquin said the decision rightly put abortion in the hands of states. However, he voted in 2015 for a national ban on abortion in most circumstances after 20 weeks. Brent Littlefield, a strategist for both candidates, declined to elaborate more on their stances.

Limits on Maine’s liberal set of abortion laws have been consistently considered in the Maine Legislature going back to the LePage years, but Republicans advanced none of them when they held narrow but full control of the State House after the former governor’s 2010 election.

That included a 2011 bill for a 24-hour waiting period before abortions that was opposed by nine Senate Republicans and another 17 in the House, with most representing cities or suburbs from the Augusta area and south. Many of those areas are places that LePage must either win or stem losses in to offset likely strong southern Maine support for Mills.

Things have polarized in the last decade. No Republicans backed a bill signed into law by Mills mandating public and private insurance coverage of abortions. That was a different calculus than instituting new restrictions favored by social conservatives would be.

The evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine said Roe’s overturning will “begin a conversation” over abortion rights but has not yet offered a specific legislative agenda, while Democrats and their allies are underlining threats in the early post-Roe period.

“Electing people who would want to take away access to abortion and reproductive rights, that’s not the values of Maine people and so they shouldn’t be serving in office,” Nicole Clegg, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, told reporters on Friday.

Former state Sen. Eric Brakey talks with a reporter at the polls in Lewiston on July 14, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Among those who hailed the decision were former state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who is seeking to win his old seat in a November race with former Rep. Bettyann Sheats, D-Auburn. He is anti-abortion but supports the ruling on broader legal grounds, arguing rights not explicitly granted by the Constitution are generally better left to states.

Brakey said the Legislature should repeal Medicaid funding for abortions, but he said any limits should come with supports including easier access to contraceptives. He was skeptical of strict limits, noting Maine bans abortions after fetal viability and indicating concerns about how laws in conservative states may affect women who have ectopic pregnancies.

“It’s one thing to virtue signal,” Brakey said. “It’s another thing when you put your virtue signaling into law without any thought on how you actually craft things to really balance all the all the considerations involved.”

BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.

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...