The first of four televised debates between Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage begins with a forum at 8 p.m. Tuesday hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald. Independent Sam Hunkler also will be on the stage before an audience at the Franco Center in downtown Lewiston.
The Democratic governor and her Republican opponent have a historic rivalry going back to his time in the Blaine House and her overlapping six years as attorney general. She won the race to succeed him with a promise to undo much of his legacy.
They are even preparing differently for the debate slate. Last week, Mills said she was doing research to confirm what she already knows about her successes in office. Not setting low expectations, LePage said he does not need to prepare and he will “eat her lunch.”
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Here’s what to expect and what Mills and LePage allies want to see.
Look to TV ads for signs of what the candidates want to discuss. The media outlets will set the agenda for tonight’s debate after recent polling that has shown costs and inflation, abortion rights and the state of democracy to be among the top-of-mind issues for Maine voters.
The candidates will have overlapping ideas. Some of Mills’ most recent TV ads have focused on her abortion-rights stance and the divisiveness of LePage’s era. Republicans first looked to reintroduce the former governor’s life story but have now changed to hit Mills on education, including a video linked to a lesson on a state website calling several terms examples of “covert racism.”
Mills has run a reasonably quiet race in recent weeks amid polling that shows her comfortably ahead. Both parties are skeptical of that and expect a closer race, but LePage has run like he is behind in recent weeks, pivoting from lower-key appearances before friendly crowds to a deluge of news conferences on Kennebec River dams, education and the opioid crisis.
Allies want to see precision and fire from the candidates. We have not seen LePage on a debate stage since 2014, when he won reelection on an “actions, not words” message that downplayed his bombastic history. (That was before the most controversial moments of his tenure in his second term.) He was both jovial and animated in those early debates.
Mills, a career prosecutor with a long history in state government, was chiefly debating Republican businessman Shawn Moody four years ago. Early debates were cordial but escalated late in the campaign. She looked to establish command of government’s finer details while he looked to present a contrast. Contrast should establish itself between Mills and LePage.
“This is kind of an apples-to-apples debate and we haven’t seen that in a very long time,” said former Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who is now a political operative. “People are going to be able to compare them in real time.”
Mason wants to see a “vintage LePage” that is fiery but tempered and hits hot-button issues, including energy and education, and outlines exactly what he would have done differently than Mills over the last four years.
Veteran energy lobbyist Tony Buxton, a former Maine Democratic Party chair and a Mills ally, noted that TV does not reward calmness, so he would advise the governor to “have her lines ready” for the unpredictable LePage. But he also noted that the governor can be feisty as well.
“This is not a docile person. So I think if he brings it, she will counter it,” Buxton said. “She’s got plenty of hard-hitting things that she can say.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the debate’s start time.