Paul LePage’s Comeback Bid – The Atlantic

JAY, Maine—Services at the New Life Baptist Church had just wrapped up, and in the parking lot outside its tiny chapel, Paul LePage was standing behind me with his arm wrapped around my head. He held a cellphone inches from my face, as if he were filming an extreme close-up. The former and perhaps future governor of Maine had insisted on reenacting an incident that had occurred a few weeks earlier, when he’d threatened “to deck” a Democratic operative tracking his campaign. “If you come into my space,” LePage had warned the young man, “you’re going down.”

I had asked LePage about the flap because it represented exactly the kind of uncivil confrontation for which the pugnacious Republican has become known. For more than a year, he had studiously been trying to avoid such encounters—and had largely succeeded. LePage, who as governor once challenged a Democratic legislator to a duel, famously bragged that he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump.” After two tumultuous terms, he left office four years ago with an approval rating of just 39 percent. Now 73, LePage is attempting a comeback, bidding to oust the Democrat who replaced him, Janet Mills. With Trump eyeing a revival of his own in 2024, the gubernatorial race this fall could serve as a test of Maine voters’ appetite for the return of a Trumpian leader after four years of somewhat calmer Democratic governance.

A changed man LePage is not. But he is trying at least to sand down his rough edges, perhaps recognizing that the bombastic style he pioneered is no longer a winning formula in a state that shifted left in 2018 and decisively rejected Trump two years later. The governor who labeled people of color as “the enemy” of the nation’s whitest state has joined the parade of candidates denouncing the vitriol and even occasional violence that have infected American politics. “There’s an awful lot of hate in the hearts of many people, and it’s sad,” LePage told the parishioners inside the church, during a service on the 21st anniversary of 9/11. “We have to pray it away,” he said. “We have to come together as one nation.” Quoting Abraham Lincoln’s warning that a house divided cannot stand, LePage bemoaned the deep fissures between Republicans and Democrats. “It’s becoming vile and horrible.”

Was LePage trying to present a kinder, gentler version of himself this election? I asked the ex-governor that exact question outside the church. “No,” he replied. “What I’m saying is life is a journey. And along the way you learn and you get better, and hope that every day, the rest of my life, I’m a better man.”

An admirable sentiment. But did LePage think that during his time in office he had contributed to the hate he now recognizes in this country? He replied in a way that suggested he had some practice answering this query. “Am I perfect? No,” LePage said. “Did I make mistakes? Yes. Did I defend my family? Yes. Will I continue to defend my family? Yes.”

LePage likes to respond to inquiries with questions of his own. When asked about his critics’ pointing out how often he had promised to change his ways only to fall back into confrontations and insults, he responded by asking if I had seen such a lapse during this campaign. I replied that personally I had not. But of course, there was that pesky matter of the run-in with the Democratic operative. Clearly, LePage did not count that as one of his mistakes.

“He came into my personal space,” LePage said. “Let me show you what he did.” Before I knew it, the former governor had swung around me and begun the demonstration he hoped would exonerate him. Once he had shown me his quick version of events, LePage returned to where he had been standing for our interview. “If somebody attacks me,” he said, wagging a finger, “I will defend myself.”

When I checked the video of LePage’s brief confrontation with the Democratic operative, the interaction looked nothing like the former governor’s reenactment. The operative had approached LePage as the two men were stepping over a puddle after a parade (LePage was holding a Tim Hortons doughnut), but the closest the man came to LePage appeared to be a couple of feet, not inches. Yet the reason Democrats were so keen on broadcasting the incident as widely as possible—and why LePage was so intent on defending his reaction—was that the whole thing seemed so familiar, so very LePage.

Long before Trump shocked (and, in many cases, enthralled) voters on the campaign trail and upended Washington with his unfiltered, impulsive, often downright mean governing style, LePage had been doing the same in Maine. When in 2016 LePage described himself as Trump before Trump, “he was 100 percent correct,” says Roger Katz, a former GOP state legislator in Maine who backed LePage’s first gubernatorial run in 2010 but is now endorsing Mills. “The same kinds of insulting behavior and lack of respect for people is how he governed.”

LePage’s blatantly racist comments about Hispanic immigrants and Black people often made national headlines, but the many stories about his impulsive governing and frequent tirades have become local legends in Maine. Almost everyone I spoke with who had worked with the governor had a tale to share. Katz recalled the time that, in a fit of rage at lawmakers, LePage vetoed every single bill at the end of a legislative session, including those that he himself had proposed. Jeff McCabe, a Democrat who served as majority leader of the Maine House of Representatives, told me about how LePage had abruptly ordered a state prison closed in the middle of a dispute with lawmakers, resulting in the hasty transfer of inmates during the dark of night. “People woke up and thought there had been a prison break,” McCabe said.

Drew Gattine, now the chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, was serving in the state legislature in 2016 when he criticized LePage for comments in which the governor claimed that virtually all of the drug dealers arrested in Maine were “Black and Hispanic people.” In response, LePage left Gattine a voicemail in which he called him “a little son-of-a-bitch, socialist cocksucker.” The governor went on: “I want you to record this and make it public, because I am after you.” LePage later apologized to Gattine, but not before he told reporters that he wished it was “1825,” so the two men could duel. “I would not put my gun in the air,” LePage said at the time. “I guarantee you, I would not be [Alexander] Hamilton. I would point it right between his eyes, because he is a snot-nosed little runt.”

Picture of protestors who were upset with Gov Paul Lepage outside in Augusta, Maine, August 30th.
Protesters upset with then-Governor Paul LePage hold a rally outside the governor’s mansion in Augusta, Maine, on August 30, 2016. (Yoon Byun / The New York Times / Redux)

When I asked 63-year-old Joanne Glidden, an amateur motorcyclist with the United Bikers of Maine, what she liked most about LePage, she replied with a wide grin, “He reminds me of Trump!” As with Trump, LePage’s combativeness and lack of a public filter endeared him to many Republican and independent voters, who form the base of his current support. Glidden was among a dozen or so people who lingered at a fairgrounds in Windsor, Maine, after LePage had spoken to the biker group. “He spoke his mind, and I liked that,” Dan Adams, a 57-year-old crane operator, told me. “He don’t pull no punches.” The owner of a day-care center, Penny Nava, 56, told me she didn’t want to see LePage change his approach. “You need to be who you are,” she said. “You let that go, and you lose yourself.”

Maine is not as deeply blue a state as the most recent presidential election might suggest. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s three-point margin of victory in Maine came closer than all but one other state (Nevada) to matching her slim advantage in the national popular vote. The state backed Biden by nine points in 2020, but Maine voters split their ballots and reelected Republican Senator Susan Collins by nearly the same margin, shocking Democrats who had spent nearly $100 million to defeat her. In both years, Trump won an electoral vote by carrying Maine’s rural Second Congressional District, where LePage yard signs have become ubiquitous.

Unlike Trump, LePage grew up in poverty, not wealth and privilege. The eldest of 18 children, he ran away from home to escape an abusive, alcoholic father and was homeless for a time, working odd jobs to survive. He eventually graduated from college, started a business, and then worked for many years as the general manager of a discount chain store before launching his career in politics. LePage ran for governor after two terms as mayor of Waterville, a Democratic-leaning city that is home to Colby College.

He won each of his two gubernatorial races in three-way contests that allowed him to capitalize on a divided opposition. In neither election did he capture a majority of the vote, winning with just 37.6 percent in 2010 and 48.2 percent in 2014. He spent eight years governing conservatively, reducing taxes and fighting for lower spending. After Maine voters approved a referendum to expand Medicaid, LePage blocked its implementation. His elections galvanized the movement in Maine toward ranked-choice voting, as advocates argued that the system would favor more-moderate candidates and would ensure that the winner ultimately secured votes from at least 50 percent of the electorate. Maine became the first state to adopt ranked-choice balloting and used the system in 2018 and 2020. But in a twist, a judge ruled that the system could go forward only in federal elections—for president and Congress—and not in state races. So it will not be in place for the Mills-LePage matchup this fall, although the lack of a serious independent candidate likely means that the change will have little effect.

Mills has held a small but consistent lead in the limited public polling so far, and Democrats expect the race to be close. They worry that the passage of time will have caused voters to forget what they disliked about LePage’s leadership style, so they’ve taken it upon themselves to remind them about his most memorable outbursts and dispute assertions that he’s changed. The strategy could be a preview of a national campaign against Trump should he run again in 2024. Across the country, this fall’s ballots feature plenty of Trump allies, acolytes, and would-be clones, most notably the gubernatorial candidates Kari Lake in Arizona and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. But Maine voters had already experienced eight years of Trump-style chaos before they turned in the other direction, and now they face the unique question of whether they want to go back. LePage “has never lost an election,” Mark Brewer, a political-science professor at the University of Maine, told me. “So betting against him historically has been a losing bet.”

Picture of Donald Trump shaking hands with Paul LePage being introduced at a rally in Merrill Auditorium on Thursday, August 4, 2016.
Donald Trump shakes hands with Maine Governor Paul LePage as he is introduced at a rally in Merrill Auditorium on Thursday, August 4, 2016. (Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald / Getty)

If LePage is a stand-in for Trump this November, Janet Mills is a Biden-esque figure in Maine. At 74, she hails from a prominent political family and has served in public office with only a few years’ interruption since the ’70s. Mills’s parents were friends of the longtime Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith, and one of her brothers twice ran for governor as a Republican. After decades as a prosecutor and state legislator, Mills won election as Maine’s attorney general in 2008 and again in 2012. From that perch, she battled frequently with LePage, who at one point sued her for refusing to represent his administration when it sided with then-President Trump over his executive order restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries. (The state supreme court ruled in favor of Mills.)

Mills became Maine’s first woman governor after earning 51 percent of the vote in 2018—a higher share than LePage won in either of his victories. She acted immediately to implement the voter-approved Medicaid expansion and has increased spending on education, on infrastructure, and in the fight against climate change. Like Biden, she has occasionally worked with Republicans, most recently drawing bipartisan support to send $850 relief checks to citizens as a way to reduce the effects of inflation. Mills has also occasionally tangled with progressives, vetoing some bills passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature.

Mostly, Mills seems to have lowered the temperature of state politics. She’s warm and unassuming; when I saw her greeting patrons at a small farmers’ market, she drew little attention to herself and seemed to blend in with the crowd. On a recent Saturday morning, Mills spoke briefly to mark the tenth anniversary of the opening of a local grain mill. She read her remarks off an iPhone while a dancing toddler competed for the audience’s attention nearby.

If Democrats find fault with Mills, it’s that she is perhaps too low-key. “I don’t think she’s brought in a lot of people,” Nancy Baxter, a 65-year-old health administrator for the federal government, told me at the market. “I don’t see her having excited the state as much as we’d hoped.”

I met Mills outside the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, where the governor had worked for many years as a lawyer before entering politics. During a 30-minute interview, she touted her administration’s handling of and emergence from the pandemic. Like its neighbors in New England, Maine has a relatively high vaccination rate and low death rate, especially considering its population is one of the oldest in the country. Mills boasted about the state’s migration rate, which she said was the country’s seventh highest. “We’re turning the corner, and people are coming here,” she said. “We’ve become branded as a safe and welcoming state, and I like that.”

Mills brushed off LePage’s frequent attacks on her. “I can’t judge who he is today, but the people of Maine know who he was before,” she said. Mills sounded a bit like a candidate who believes she’s ahead in the polls. She noted that LePage had appeared in the state with Trump during the height of the pandemic, in 2020, when the former president called her “a dictator.” “I thought, This is ridiculous,” Mills recalled, dismissively. “For the better part of my career, I’ve listened to weak men talk tough. Loud men talk tough to hide their weaknesses.”

Trump hasn’t come to Maine to campaign for LePage this year. During my swing through the state, the Trump-before-Trump himself was a tough man to find.

He’s running a decidedly low-profile statewide race—“a stealth campaign,” as Mills described it to me—having apparently determined that the easiest way to stay on his best behavior is to steer clear of situations that would test his discipline. After formally launching his gubernatorial campaign a year ago, LePage has held virtually no large rallies and given few press conferences or interviews (aside from appearances on conservative radio stations). Maine’s political press corps is not large, and LePage frequently evades reporters by publicizing his appearances only after they’ve occurred, usually by posting photos to his Twitter or Facebook pages.

LePage’s campaign ignored me entirely. My many calls and emails went unreturned, and when I stopped by his campaign headquarters early on a Friday afternoon after Labor Day, no one was there. (“Don’t take it personally,” Katz, the former GOP lawmaker and LePage critic, assured me, noting that LePage “had a terrible relationship with the press” when he was governor.) When I showed up at a local GOP fundraiser that Democrats said LePage would be addressing, the organizers told me he had never been on the schedule. They directed me instead to the charity event that the United Bikers of Maine was holding about an hour away. LePage had indeed spoken to the group, but he was long gone by the time I got there.

I finally found the former governor on the morning of September 11 in the rural town of Jay, about 30 miles northwest of Augusta, the state capital. The New Life Baptist Church is the size of a modest, one-story house, and LePage arrived with his wife, Ann; a campaign aide; and a trio of local Republican legislators. He had befriended the church’s pastor, Chris Grimbilas, during his second term as governor, and the two have stayed in close touch in the years since. Grimbilas told the approximately 30 parishioners gathered in the sanctuary that LePage was not there “to campaign,” although LePage sounded very much like a candidate on the stump during his brief remarks from the pulpit. The theme of the Sunday service was to honor first responders, and LePage began by comparing the state’s firing last year of police officers and firefighters who refused COVID-19 vaccinations to the horrors of 9/11. “It was the most vicious of attacks on first responders I’ve seen since the World Trade Center,” he said, pledging to reinstate those who lost their jobs in January if he becomes governor again.

LePage’s sparse public schedule might seem like a questionable campaign strategy, but it could prove effective. As a recent two-term governor, he does not need to introduce himself to voters, and he might be hoping that a midterm backlash against Democrats nationwide will return him to office.

As for Trump, LePage is happy to have the votes of Mainers who associate him positively with the former president. But he’s not emphasizing the connection. For some voters, the link between the two men seems to be thinner than it was when both were in office. Despite their similar personalities, LePage and Trump had very different upbringings, and they’ve diverged again during their (perhaps temporary) retirements.

Unlike Trump, LePage left office willingly when his term was up in 2019. He and his wife initially moved to Florida, but he returned to Maine and worked as a bartender at McSeagull’s Restaurant for two summers, in the coastal tourist town of Boothbay Harbor. The gig served as good publicity for both the bar and LePage, who was already talking about challenging Mills for governor. Although he struggled to keep up during busy times, LePage’s fellow bartenders told me he was a good colleague who took direction well. “He needs to keep his mouth shut,” Gigi Frost, 41, told me. But she added: “I really do like him personally.” Frost, an independent, said she hadn’t decided whether to vote for LePage or Mills. Yet she saw LePage as distinct from Trump. “I despise Trump,” she said. “I don’t think LePage is as bad.”

That assessment matched what I heard from some other Maine voters, including those who hadn’t spent a summer pouring beers with the former governor. Trump is in a whole other category now from LePage. “LePage is better than Trump,” Shirley Emery, a 74-year-old retiree, told me in Windsor. “He’s honest. He’s not a womanizer.”

LePage seems to be hearing those voices too, and his cautious, buttoned-up strategy suggests that he sees Trumpism waning in the upper reaches of New England. When I asked him whether he still aligned himself with Trump, the former governor clammed up. “I’m running for governor of the state of Maine,” he said, “and I’m not going to talk about national politics.” I tried again. Should Trump run again in 2024? “I’m running for governor of the state of Maine, all right? And that’s it.”

Perhaps Paul LePage is a transformed man after all. The conservative who ran on unvarnished, tell-it-like-it-is authenticity has finally discovered his filter and learned the coded deflection of the blue-state Republican. Distancing himself from the president he once claimed as a protégé, the straight-talking governor has, in pursuit of one more term in power, almost become a conventional politician.

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