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Paul LePage tries to make a comeback in Maine. Will independent voters bite?

In Maine, incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, left, and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage will face off for the 2022 election for governor.
Robert F. Bukaty
In Maine, incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, left, and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage will face off for the 2022 election for governor.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine's race for governor will be a three-way contest focused on two longtime rivals, incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who have never faced one another in an election.

Tuesday is Maine's primary day, but when it comes to the race for governor, the real match-up will be in November.

Gov. Mills won the seat in 2018, becoming the first woman elected governor in state history and the first non-incumbent to win an outright majority since 1966. LePage, her predecessor, is a hard-charging conservative whose second term ended in 2018 after multiple controversies that drew national headlines and frequent comparisons to former President Donald Trump.

LePage's penchant for testing the limits of his authority were often confronted by Mills, who served as Maine's attorney general for most of his two terms.

The issues

LePage, as he did when he narrowly won a five-way contest in 2010, is attempting to nationalize the race by focusing on inflation, linking Mills to President Biden, and what he describes as the governor's heavy-handed pandemic response.

Mills attempted to address inflation concerns by shepherding a proposal that returned nearly 60% of the state's budget surplus to 858,000 Maine tax filers via direct payments. The proposal won overwhelming bipartisan backing in the legislature, but LePage has pushed for income tax cuts and called the payments a gimmick designed to buy votes in November.

Mills is also framing her reelection bid as a fight against the return to LePage-era theatrics and aggressive politics, which included blocking voter-approved bonds and Medicaid expansion, as well as pushing Republican loyalists in the legislature to orchestrate a government shutdown in 2017 — Maine's first in nearly three decades.

Sam Hunkler, a little-known independent who acknowledges that he has malleable and undefined policy positions, is also on the ballot.

The campaigns

Mills has campaigned infrequently but leads LePage in campaign cash. However, the Republican has never been a prolific fundraiser and he has won every election he's run in. Outside groups like the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association are expected to be active in the race. Both groups are routing their influence campaigns through local political committees in a state where outsiders — and outside campaign spending — are often viewed suspiciously.

Public polling has been infrequent, but recent surveys show a tight race with Maine's famously independent and persuadable voters potentially determining the winner. The surveys show strong Republican support for LePage, a popular figure in the local GOP dominated by Trump supporters. The former governor was Trump's state campaign chairman in 2020, but he's made little mention of the former president during a rebranding effort designed to win over independent voters who turned on Trump two years ago and helped make Biden the statewide winner.

Mills has governed as a centrist, refusing to raise taxes and opposing some progressive initiatives in the Democratic-controlled legislature. Some of her positions, including opposition to a sweeping initiative that would have recognized the sovereignty of Maine's Native American tribes, have irked activists on her left flank.

At the same time, Mills has expressed strong support for abortion rights, a position that could help her close a potential enthusiasm gap with LePage if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

Maine voters rarely unseat incumbent governors. The last time it happened was in 1966.

Copyright 2022 Maine Public

Journalist Steve Mistler is MPBN's chief political correspondent and statehouse bureau chief, specializing in the coverage of politics and state government.
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