He’s called state workers “corrupt.” He’s joked about blowing up a local newspaper office and used a rape-sans-Vaseline analogy to describe a Democratic legislator’s actions.
In his most recent flap, Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage may or may not have accused President Obama of hating white people. Accounts vary.
Since his election three years ago, LePage, 64, has shown an uncanny knack for the crude comeback, the racially insensitive remark, the just plain old bluster-and-fume routine.
And it’s catching up to him as he prepares for re-election in 2014.
He drew unflattering national attention last week for his Obama comment — a remark two Republican lawmakers alleged the governor made at a private GOP fundraiser. LePage initially denied saying it, but he subsequently apologized to his party for “any difficulty” caused by the “recently reported” remarks.
The governor’s approval rating remains perilously low at 39 percent, compared with 56 percent who disapprove of his job performance, according to a new poll.
“He’s hurting Maine’s reputation, nationally and internationally,” says Andrew Ian Dodge, a former Tea Party activist and unsuccessful independent candidate in the state’s 2012 race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Hope In A Three-Way Race
Despite the eye-rolling and public scoldings that have followed LePage’s more crude and incendiary pronouncements (he once compared the IRS to Nazi Germany’s secret police and also once said Obama could “go to hell”) and his low standing in the polls, there’s reason for the governor’s supporters to remain hopeful.
With two other declared candidates running, Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, it’s a best-case scenario for the incumbent. His opponents are poised to divide the anti-LePage vote between them, enabling the governor to win with a plurality.
That’s how LePage, one of only two Republican governors in the Northeast (the other is New Jersey’s Chris Christie), won the first time. He captured 38.3 percent of the vote in 2010’s three-person gubernatorial race.
But a poll released Tuesday by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling shop showed LePage trailing Michaud, 39 percent to 35 percent. The Democrat has benefited from Cutler’s declining support — from 26 percent in January to 18 percent.
Cutler, a lawyer seeking to become the state’s third independent governor, finished a close second to LePage in 2010.
“Gov. LePage’s [level of] popularity is holding constant, and that’s really the remarkable thing,” says Scott Moody, who heads the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative, free-market think tank.
One reason is the governor’s compelling life story. The eldest of 18 children, born into poverty and raised in a home with an alcoholic, abusive father, he rose to mayor of Waterville, and then became Maine’s first Franco-American governor.
Moody said he believes that LePage’s problems with Maine voters are overstated by the media and pundits, particularly those from outside the state.
“If you travel the state, in the south, in Portland, you would think that the fact he’s made these comments that it would be the end of the governor, for sure,” Moody says. “You go to northern Maine, where most of the born-Mainers live, and you’ll find they’re appreciative of his remarks. They see him as standing up for the average Mainers.”
Michaud, however, presents a special challenge: His congressional district encompasses most of the state, including all of its northern reaches and its most rural areas. He won his fifth term in 2010, defeating his Republican opponent by more than 10 points.
LePage’s re-election path becomes significantly more difficult if Cutler drops out. Democrats privately are crossing their fingers that Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who served two terms as governor from 1995 to 2003, will persuade his friend, Cutler, to end his campaign.
Moody agrees that a Cutler-less race would be problematic for the incumbent governor.
“If it’s a two-way race between Mike Michaud and the governor, I think it would be very, very hard for him,” Moody says. “Between now and 2014, a lot can happen.”
Disillusioned Liberty Voters
Part of LePage’s problem is that he’s facing an attack on a new front, from a cadre of the libertarian and Tea Party Republicans who helped him eke out his 2010 win.
“People had a lot of high hopes,” says Mark Willis, a former Republican National Committee member from Maine, who recently resigned from the party amid a dispute over its direction.
“Something has changed,” Willis said. “We do not like the direction we’re going; it’s not the direction we expected from the governor and his administration.”
Willis says his beef centers on what he describes as “liberty” issues the governor has not embraced.
LePage vetoed a bill that would have banned law enforcement from using drones without a search warrant — legislation championed by libertarian Republicans. He also vetoed a bill that would have allowed the unlicensed sale of raw milk and rejected legislation calling for an Internet sales tax study, arguing that the issue should be settled at the federal level.
The governor’s endorsement of Common Core federal educational standards, a cause which libertarians have taken up against, has also angered former allies.
“This all gives people the opportunity to point fingers at him,” says Sam Canders, who joined Willis in leaving the Republican Party to join the state’s majority of registered voters who aren’t enrolled in any party.
Canders, a member of the state delegation to the 2012 Republican National Convention (and, like Willis, a Ron Paul delegate), said he himself has thought about running for governor.
“I think it’s wide open,” he said.
Moody warns that Republicans “need to keep the big picture in mind” — and that doesn’t mean committing party fratricide over raw milk or the Internet tax debate.
“The governor’s stable popularity is a testament to his policies, which have been popular. That’s why the attacks are on him personally,” he says. “Tax reductions, pension reform, health care reform, charter school legislation — policywise, he’s doing everything he said he’d do when he campaigned.”
Moody says his organization’s plan to phase out the state income tax has the governor’s support; Democrats have described it as another GOP “race to the bottom” idea that will ultimately hurt the state’s less fortunate.
As the governor’s race continues to take shape amid a debate over whether LePage is Maine’s embarrassment or asset, both parties are sorting through clues from a Democratic win in a state Senate contest that took place Tuesday.
The victor, Eloise Vitelli, won the special election with 49.6 percent of the vote in a three-way contest. Republican Paula Benoit, a former legislator portrayed by Vitelli as a LePage loyalist, got 46.57 percent. The Green Independent candidate received 3.83 percent of the vote.
Vitelli’s win keeps the Democrats’ Senate majority at 19, with 15 Republicans and one independent. Democrats control the state House by a wide margin.
LePage’s critics have suggested that the well-funded race would send a strong message about how the governor will play in politically competitive districts in a state where Democrats have won both legislative chambers in the past two election cycles.
Republicans dismissed the notion that there are broader lessons to be learned from the outcome.
Bronwen Tudor, Democratic Party chairwoman in Sagadahoc County — where the special election took place — says it may be a bit of both.
“I don’t think it was ever a proxy race,” she said Tuesday morning. “But everyone was aware that the press, and whoever won, would try to make it a referendum on the governor.”
In Maine, she cautioned, “I don’t think that a legislative race is ever a referendum on somebody else. We just meet so many voters face to face.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Democrats weren’t euphoric after Tuesday’s victory, she said, or that some voters weren’t motivated by unhappiness with the governor.
“It would have been very discouraging to have lost,” Tudor said. “We’re energized now, but we certainly can’t take anything for granted.”
The Maine Heritage Policy Center’s Moody says that no matter the outcome of the state Senate race, LePage is destined to “have a big, national target on him.”