AUGUSTA, Maine — It was not certain if Gov. Paul LePage and then-U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District were going to meet for gubernatorial debates in 2014. When they did, the dynamic was a hard one for the challenger.
The Republican governor was already known for bombast but had not gone through the most headline-grabbing times of his tenure. Upset about a Michaud attack in late September, LePage said he would not debate the Democrat, but the two later agreed to five debates.
They happened alongside independent Eliot Cutler, who leaned liberal but joined with LePage to hammer the congressman. In the first debate, they high-fived and hugged. The governor made faces while Michaud spoke, laughed derisively when hit and used the performance to highlight a central idea that voters should focus on his actions, not his words.
The first of four televised debates between LePage and Gov. Janet Mills starts Tuesday, with independent longshot Sam Hunkler joining them at a Lewiston forum hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald. The anticipated slate of debates present far different challenges than either politician has faced before and will put their stark differences on display.
Those differences go down to preparation. Ahead of the debates, Mills said while leaving a Lewiston event last week that she was doing her own research “to confirm some of what I already know about our accomplishments.” After an Augusta event, LePage said he did not need to prepare to debate Mills because she “has no policies.”
“Absolutely. Are you kidding me?” he replied after being asked if he was excited to debate the governor. “I’ll eat her lunch.”
Mills is 74 years old and LePage will be the same age next week. She came from a political family, and he grew up homeless, rose in business and still derides career politicians while seeking a third term. They spent six overlapping years in Augusta battling each other.
Mills, then the attorney general, won the Blaine House in 2018 with a promise to upend much of LePage’s legacy. She has campaigned on implementing Medicaid expansion that LePage blocked and managing the COVID-19 pandemic, while LePage has recently pivoted from a low-key campaign to knock his opponent on subjects from education to the opioid crisis.
Eight years ago, Michaud prepared diligently for his debates with LePage. That included mock debates in which the heart-on-his-sleeve state Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, played LePage after being the target of a crude 2013 remark from the Republican. Kurt Adams, a lawyer best known as the former Maine Public Utilities Commission chair, played Cutler, also a lawyer.
The idea was to put Michaud under duress while honing his talking points, said David Farmer, a Democratic strategist who served as a spokesperson for Michaud and helped Mills prepare for her 2018 debates by playing Republican nominee Shawn Moody. The plain-spoken Michaud, who rose in politics as a millworker, was not always comfortable with those lines, Farmer said.
That plus the two-on-one attacks and that LePage is “not bound by the facts and completely unpredictable” put Michaud at a disadvantage, Farmer said. But Mills will be a different challenge for LePage given her political history and command of details, he said.
“Janet Mills is a career prosecutor,” he said. “She brings a completely different skill set.”
Maine Republicans generally prepare less formally. Moody, the 2018 Republican nominee, said he did not do mock debates but worked with advisers to form succinct summaries of his positions. Former Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, who is now a political operative, said these debates will be different and marked with “personal beef.”
The socially conservative Mason referred to “LePage 2.0” — a pitch from the former governor’s supporters that he was calmer and more policy focused but has been derided by Democrats — by saying he wants to see more “vintage LePage” in the debates. That means a fiery version tempered with “the benefit of his experience” in office.
“Mainers are known for being straight-talking people,” he said. “Paul LePage won their vote by being a straight-talking governor, and I think he needs to do that again.”
BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.