YARMOUTH, Maine – When then-Maine Gov. Paul LePage endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, he credited himself as a prototype for the insurgent presidential candidate.
“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular, so I think I should support him since we are one of the same cloth,” said LePage, whose two terms in office were punctuated by brash behavior and frequently offensive comments.
Now, as LePage is running for a third term after a brief retirement to Florida, he rarely talks about Trump in public, and his advisers say LePage's hiatus from politics changed him. He's eager to show he's smoothed over some of his own rough edges, though flashes of his fiery personality broke through recently at an event at a riverfront boatyard in Yarmouth, where he pledged to take on Democratic “elitists.”
“I came from the streets. I was a fighter all my life,” LePage told workers. “I had to scrimp and save to eat and survive. I am a fighter.”
As LePage seeks to unseat Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and become the longest-serving governor in Maine history, he is banking on an approach familiar to other Republican candidates in liberal- and moderate-leaning states who are trying not to alienate swing voters they would need to win a general election. LePage's efforts at putting distancing from Trump are particularly notable given LePage once invited comparisons to Trump — and made them himself.
Democrats aren’t going to let voters forget LePage's tumultuous time in office, when he occasionally acted and sounded a lot like Trump. LePage attracted national headlines when he told the Portland chapter of the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” made racist remarks about drug dealers who impregnate “white” girls and accused a lawmaker of screwing over state taxpayers “without providing Vaseline.”
His critics point to a recent campaign event in which LePage threatened to “deck” a Democratic staffer who got too close to him — an incident, they say, that illustrates LePage hasn't changed at all.
The race is shaping up to be among a dozen or so competitive contests for governor this election year. The way in which the campaign plays out with voters weary of political ugliness may be a harbinger for Trump’s White House aspirations in 2024.
LePage and Mills' adversarial relationship goes back years.
Mills, a 74-year-old moderate and the first woman elected governor of Maine, is a former two-term attorney general whose stint as the state's top prosecutor coincided with LePage's time as governor. The two clashed publicly, with Mills declining to represent LePage's administration on some matters, forcing LePage to seek outside counsel to represent his interests in litigation.
Her supporters portray her as a steady leader whose cautious COVID-19 policies helped guide the state through the worst pandemic in a century, with fewer coronavirus deaths per capita than most others. She expanded Medicaid — something LePage had blocked — and presided over the largest budget surplus in Maine history, which allowed the state to send $850 relief checks to most residents.
Raised in poverty and homeless for a time as a boy, LePage, 73, is an unabashed conservative whose past controversies often overshadowed his political achievements, such as lowering the tax burden, shrinking welfare rolls, overhauling the pension system and paying back millions of dollars of hospital debt.
He attacked Mills’ executive orders during the pandemic, including mandatory vaccines for health care workers, calling it a “reign of terror.” He’s called for a parental bill of rights in education, claimed Mill has allowed crime and drugs to proliferate and accused her of budgetary gimmicks that will cause problems in the future. He has promised to try again to eliminate the state’s income tax.
When LePage left office in 2019, prevented from seeking a third consecutive term by the Maine Constitution, he declared he was decamping for Florida, where the taxes were lower, and leaving politics behind.
He didn’t stay away long. Soon, he was headed back to Maine for what supporters described as “LePage 2.0.”
LePage's senior adviser Brent Littlefield said LePage was astounded when Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and that LePage fears the country is in danger of tearing itself apart. LePage issued a statement amid the violence supporting law enforcement and telling those involved in the riot “to leave and go home.”
LePage served as Trump’s honorary state chairman and once sought a job in his administration, but he now won’t say whether he would vote for Trump for president if Trump runs again in 2024. Despite any private misgivings, however, LePage hasn't condemned Trump. He declined an Associated Press interview request.
The former governor made no reference to Trump while touring Yankee Marina & Boatyard, even though Trump remains popular in rural Maine, where he twice won an electoral vote while losing the statewide vote.
Boatyard president Deborah Delp said LePage is needed at a time when her workers are suffering from high inflation and worried about the future.
She said she can “handle some rough language” from LePage if he puts the economy on track. “Politicians are politicians. And he’s not a politician. He’s a businessman. He says what he thinks,” Delp said.
Maria Testa, a Democrat from Portland, disagrees. "He’s bombastic and has a cruel temper. He’s such a big no for me,” Testa said.
While campaigning, LePage largely tries to steer clear of Trump’s lies of a rigged 2020 election. LePage acknowledges that Biden is president but declines to address whether he thinks the election was legitimate. LePage also avoids the issue of abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.
Mills has pledged to fight to ensure women continue to have a right to a legal abortion in Maine.
A third candidate for governor, independent Sam Hunkler, isn’t expected to play much of a role in the race, unlike deep-pocketed independent Eliot Cutler, who did in 2010 and 2014, when LePage won each election without a majority.
Maine's ranked-choice voting system won't be a factor. It is used in federal congressional races but not in the governor's contest because it runs afoul of the Maine Constitution.
Betsy Martin, a retired health care administrator from Biddeford, said residents are feeling drained by the corrosive partisanship in a rural state with a tradition of moderate politics and independent voters. Some are tuning out altogether, she said.
“They’re exhausted. They’re extremely fatigued. We’re worn out,” she said.
Follow David Sharp on Twitter @David_Sharp_AP
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