Gubernatorial candidates Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and Republican Paul LePage participate in a debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. The pair met up for their final debate on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The final TV debate between Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage started out hotter than their previous three meetings but followed the themes that have become familiar ahead of Tuesday’s election.

The Thursday debate was hosted in Portland by WMTW, WABI of Bangor and WAGM of Presque Isle. The Democratic governor has been favored in polls over her Republican predecessor, but the matchup between the longtime rivals has dominated the 2022 election cycle here.

After some more low-key meetings, the two pounced each other in their opening statements. Mills showed some aversion to details in forward-looking plans, while LePage stretched to avoid a key association with former President Donald Trump.

Confrontational opening statements mirrored the candidates’ week on the campaign trail.

At the end of a campaign that some have described as boring, this debate was a more confrontational one from the start. LePage has delivered an opening statement that connects his story of being homeless at age 11 to an understanding of how costs affect Maine families.

He put a finer point on it this week, noting a clip released by the Maine Republican Party this week of Mills likening inflation to a distraction. Her campaign said that the governor also noted policy responses to costs and called them a real issue.

“Maine’s next governor has to fight to lower the cost of living,” he said. “I did it once, and I’ll do it again.”

Mills responded by noting costs as “serious problems that require serious leadership.” She pivoted from that to some of the more controversial parts of LePage’s eight-year tenure, from his opposition to Medicaid expansion to a short 2017 government shutdown.

“We can’t go back to instability and infighting,” she said. “That stands in the way of solving problems.”

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Mills’ biggest non-answers came on thornier tax and energy questions.

The governor, a prosecutor by training, has looked to portray calmness and command of details during her debates with LePage. She has leaned on consensus policy responses, particularly the $850 stimulus checks sent to most Mainers earlier this year.

LePage has vacillated between criticizing Mills’ fiscal management and asking why she did not spend money on his policy initiatives, asking her Thursday why she did not cut the income tax by 40 percent retroactive to 2021. But she has been less comfortable in outlining specifics of her post-reelection plans.

When asked whether Maine’s recent run of budget surpluses fueled by federal aid meant taxes are too high and if she would propose lowering any of them, she avoided being pinned down and said the surpluses were “an indication that our budget is in balance.”

Mills also did not answer a question about whether or not she supports a progressive-led 2023 referendum bid that would replace Maine’s major electric utilities with a consumer-owned utility run by an elected board, even though she vetoed a similar measure in 2021. LePage clearly answered, likening the effort to socialism.

LePage tried to avoid an association with Trump by falsely saying he did not support a travel ban.

The former governor has had some uncomfortable exchanges on the topics of abortion rights and immigration. The latter one was more of a bugaboo for him on Thursday, when he continued to suggest that he could get asylum seekers to work faster than federal law allows.

It has been part of an effort to put forward a softer line on immigration that he did during his tenure, when he accused migrants of spreading infectious diseases. That has only gone so far, however, with LePage’s campaign criticizing Mills often for expanding state aid to more asylum seekers.

“There’s two types of politicians: There are talkers and doers,” he said on the work issue. “I will get it done.”

Mills shot back by noting that LePage had supported Trump’s 2017 executive order banning travel to the U.S. from a group of Muslim countries. He hailed it in a tweet at the time, saying Mills was speaking for herself after joining Democrats on a legal brief against the order.

“I did not support Donald Trump’s ban,” LePage said despite that. “What I support is legal immigration and having the federal government fix it and allowing people to go to work.”

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...