Republican Paul LePage participates in a gubernatorial debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. LePage is challenging Democratic Gov. Janet Mils. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Gov. Paul LePage’s debate vow to veto an abortion ban at 15 weeks surprised abortion-rights and anti-abortion advocates and underscored his difficult position on a hot-button issue in his race with Gov. Janet Mills.

The Republican was pinned down on the issue during a halting and often confusing exchange with the Democratic governor and moderators of a Tuesday debate in Lewiston hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald. It was the first meeting between LePage and Mills so far and also featured independent Sam Hunkler.

LePage, who had a firm anti-abortion stance as governor, has tried to keep the campaign focused on costs and the economy. Mills has run hard on abortion rights since the June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn federal protections. 

Polling margins between the two that were tight in the spring have widened in the incumbent’s direction in recent weeks. Those on both sides cited a political calculus as a likely reason for LePage’s remarks, though they won him no support on the abortion-rights side.

“We all know of promises that politicians have made in the past that come back to bite them and, yeah, I am very surprised by that,” said Karen Vachon, a former Republican lawmaker from Scarborough who is executive director of Maine Right to Life, an anti-abortion nonprofit.

The exchange began on Tuesday with Mills saying she does not want to change a 1993 law that limits most abortions before viability, which is usually considered to begin between 24 and 28 weeks. LePage jumped in to say that was “a good bill,” he had “never, ever attempted to change it” and backs abortions in the case of rape, incest and if the mother’s life is at risk.

After being presented with a series of hypothetical restrictions, LePage again said he supported the current laws and would not sign off on those limits. Mills chimed in to ask if he would allow them to go into law without his signature. In an argument, he briefly asked her if she would “allow a baby to take a breath” before dropping a pen.

Roughly a minute later, he said he did not understand a question on restrictions. Mills replied that she did.

“I would not let such law become effective,” she said. “My veto pen will stand in the way of any restrictions on the right to abortion.”

Moderator Jennifer Rooks of Maine Public then asked LePage specifically if he would veto a bill that made most abortions illegal after 15 weeks, which would be in line with laws in Mississippi and Florida and a federal proposal from Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina. Only a small share of abortions — just over 3 percent in 2019 — happen after 15 weeks in Maine. 

“Yes,” LePage said.

The former governor’s campaign declined to reconcile LePage’s Tuesday remarks with his long-held anti-abortion stance, with strategist Brent Littlefield referring a reporter to a tweet of his that criticized Mills for running against LePage on the issue when both back the 1993 law.

LePage often attended anti-abortion rallies during his time as governor, but restrictive legislation never moved forward when he and Republicans controlled Augusta after the 2020 election due to a group of abortion-rights members. The Legislature is now controlled by Democrats. LePage has opposed Mills’ 2019 move to allow MaineCare funding for abortions.

The former governor is solidly anti-abortion, Vachon said. Despite that, she said she was both disappointed at his debate remarks and hoped that Mainers would eventually get to a position “when there are supports in place” and find abortion “absolutely unthinkable.”

Also surprised by LePage was Nicole Clegg, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, an abortion provider whose advocacy arm has endorsed Mills. That was both for “how little he presented of understanding this issue” and how he answered the question. She still did not believe he would veto a 15-week abortion ban.

“He’s trying to run away as fast as he can from his past actions,” she said. “But Maine voters really care about this, and it is defining who he is.”

Michael Shepherd

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...