Current Republican nominee for Maine governor, Paul LePage, speaks to the press in Westbrook on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

When former Maine Gov. Paul LePage became one of the first governors to endorse Trump as he rose in the party ranks during the 2016 presidential primaries, LePage compared himself to the candidate “Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”

That was true to a large degree and the two have been tied many times since then. But we have seen a subtle shift by LePage in recent weeks that has put some distance between Trump in a campaign against Gov. Janet Mills for which he must broaden his appeal.

LePage has many stylistic similarities to Trump and had earlier elevated hardline stances on immigration that the former president used to rise in the party ranks. But LePage had a hardscrabble upbringing that Trump certainly did not and that is a major part of what fueled a dark-horse rise through Maine’s 2010 primaries.

The two have been tied together for reasons that go further. LePage greeted Trump on the Bangor airport tarmac during a 2020 visit and served as the honorary chair of his Maine reelection campaign. After Trump lost the White House in November, the former governor aped Trump’s false claims of a “stolen” election.

Since LePage launched his campaign against Mills a year ago he has made unsubstantiated claims in a renewed push for voter ID laws that would take firm Republican legislative majorities to enshrine. But he has also taken care to emphasize that Maine’s elections are secure, seemingly trying not to dissuade his voters.

That previewed a minor stiff-arming of Trump that we have seen more recently. On a stop with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu in Westbrook on Thursday, the Republican declined to take sides in a skirmish between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to be the party’s standard-bearer ahead of the 2024 election. That was after LePage attended a networking event organized by DeSantis in Florida. (Trump hammered billionaire Elon Musk recently after the Tesla CEO said DeSantis would easily beat President Joe Biden.)

“I am running for governor of the state of Maine in 2022 and am less worried about [2024],” he said.

When asked by Fox News at the event whether he would welcome Trump’s help in the campaign, LePage said he did not know whether he needed it.

“If he comes, he comes,” he said. “If he doesn’t come, I think we’re doing fine.”

LePage has been polling closely with Mills so far in an election cycle that looks like it will be good for Republicans nationally. But he faces a more liberal state than the one he won in his last 2014 elections, especially in the Portland suburbs that have grown bigger and more Democratic in the last four years.

His tactics of late seem to recognize that Trump is not going to help him broaden his appeal while his opponents try to lash the two together, just as Republicans are trying to do with Maine Democrats, including Mills, to an unpopular President Joe Biden.

“Paul LePage is the perfect candidate to lead the Maine GOP’s culture wars,” Maine Democratic Party Chair Drew Gattine wrote in a May fundraising email. “The Trump wanna-be has the support of Republicans and the radical right nationwide.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect year reference to LePage’s first primary win.

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...