"While LePage’s true intentions on abortion were uncertain, one thing is clear today: The lurking radical in the race was actually Mills."
In this Jan. 17, 2023, file photo, Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference where she and other State House leaders outlined how they will continue to protect access to abortion care in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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As the vote tallies came in and the reelection of Gov. Janet Mills became apparent, her opponent Paul LePage was clearly upset, unable to comprehend the priorities of Maine voters. “I failed to make the message,” he said. “We missed the message. It’s about abortion, not about heating oil.”

The former governor’s take, while a crude oversimplification, was an observation shared by many dime-store political analysts in the state. That analysis, though, is about an inch deep and fails to consider the issue’s great complexity in the minds of voters. It also fails to consider the reasons the issue became such a defining one to Maine’s election, but not elsewhere. 

In New Hampshire, for instance, the incumbent Republican governor, Chris Sununu, won a resounding reelection, even after signing a bill prohibiting abortions after 24 weeks and stating openly that he favored restrictions. This, despite the fact that New Hampshire is nominally more pro-choice than Maine.

In the Maine race, abortion became a big focus of the Mills campaign and national Democrats last summer. It wasn’t until the gubernatorial debates, though, that the issue began to drag down LePage’s campaign. 

When asked about his position in the first debate, LePage’s response came off — even to supporters — as confused, haphazard, and uncertain. Mills, by contrast, cast herself as Maine’s chief defender of the right to an abortion. That performance was repeated in subsequent debates. 

The debate moderators were right to press LePage on the issue given the potential for state action in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe and Casey. But they were wrong to sit back and let Mills coast without asking any probing questions about her stance, allowing her to soak in all the political benefit without confronting any inconvenient questions. (More on that in a minute.)

In the aftermath of the debates, Maine voters were left with the impression that Mills was the guardian of Maine’s status-quo on the issue, while LePage was, at best, more than a little uncertain. To those voters who care most about the issue, the choice was between the known and the unknown. Risk versus uncertainty. Safe versus “I don’t know.”

What would those same voters have done if LePage was able to credibly convince them that his abortion position was a well-thought-out, reasonable defense of the status quo? I don’t know, but once again glancing over the border to New Hampshire gives a look at potential voter attitudes if the issue is handled more delicately.

But while LePage’s true intentions on abortion were uncertain, one thing is clear today: The lurking radical in the race was actually Mills. Last week, Mills announced a suite of abortion bills meant to liberalize Maine’s already liberal abortion laws, raising the eyebrows of many observers who thought they heard her argue to preserve the right, rather than expand it to include some late-term abortions past 24 weeks of gestation, provided the always ubiquitous “approval of a medical professional.”

As has been pointed out by both the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald since Mills’ announcement, her proposals are contrary to her position in the campaign. “Our statute codifies Roe v. Wade,” she said in September, “and I don’t intend to offer any changes to it.”

Well this very much is a change, and one out of alignment with mainstream opinion on abortion. Contrary to the simplistic view that America is either “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” our actual opinions about the issue are nuanced, in that support for legalized access to abortion wanes significantly after the first trimester.

A mid-2021 poll from The Associated Press found that roughly 61 percent of respondents believed that abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances in the first trimester. After that, though, things began to go the other way; 65 percent said it should usually be illegal in the second trimester, while an astounding 80 percent said it should usually be illegal in the third. 

This is in line with other polling from organizations like Pew Research Center and Gallup, which have consistently found similar results. America could be collectively characterized as believing that abortion should be legal, but after a certain time, it should no longer be an option, except in very rare cases.

This begs the question: Has Mills stepped out on a flimsy limb? Has she misjudged what the people of Maine actually think, and actually want on this issue?

Only time will tell.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...