This past two weeks, I have been back home, vacationing in Maine. One of the things I wanted to do while I was back was get a better “on the ground” assessment of where the gubernatorial race was at.
Covering Maine politics “from away”, as it were, can be a dangerous thing, lacking context and with distance from the subject being covered. So I wanted to see if I could take the opportunity to get a solid grip on what was really happening, outside of simply my own observations.
To that end, I had a the pleasure to meet with dozens of lawmakers, candidates, and opinion leaders throughout the state, and hear what they thought was happening. More of a working vacation, you might say.
One of the more interesting things I found, is that there are signals that Paul LePage, the Republican Mayor of very Democratic Waterville is almost certainly “in”.
Described by one Republican operative I met with as “definitely in”, another “[LePage] told me flat out he is running” and yet another as “giving very quiet assurances he is in the race” – it now seems likely that he is giving it more than just casual consideration. The commentary was all very quiet, but also definitive – the belief by a few observers is that he is simply waiting for the right moment to announce.
This was interesting to me, as LePage had mostly fallen off my radar. Not for being unworthy of attention, mind you, but rather because after some initial buzz late last year (and early this year), his name seemed to fall off the map, and political observers wrote him off as not seriously considering it.
Write him off no longer. The buzz was just low profile enough to not be noticed by the everyday observer, but just loud enough to be taken seriously.
This brings up a few interesting questions. Who is Paul LePage? Can he win the primary? The general?
As to the first question – I will defer to a great write up in the Colby Echo, which details his story quite well. But for those with low attention spans, I’ll give you a quick rundown:
LePage is not well known outside his corner of central Maine. He is the current Mayor of Waterville, who has been elected twice as a Republican in a decidedly Democratic town – no small feat. He is a strong supporter of TABOR, and a loud critic of the Baldacci administration. He’s earned a certain gruff reputation for his battles with the Waterville city council, and won’t have to work very hard to garner credibility with the conservative primary voters.
But, can he translate that into a real political machine? Perhaps. Many would think not, and I see their point, but there is real potential there.
His major strengths are that he is seen as an authentic conservative in a time when many Republican primary voters are outright angry that the party has moderated itself or “betrayed its principals” in several areas. He may get a few points with the GOP electorate by pointing out he has won election, and re-election on Democratic turf, thus convincing them he can do the same statewide.
But that will be a much more difficult task than winning a city race. Were he to make it through the primary, he would face some real difficulty attracting votes from the more cosmopolitan residents of southern Maine, and the moderate pragmatists of the Penobscot County. In a year where conservative enthusiasm is high and many in the middle are looking for a change, voters may be more forgiving, but it would still remain a challenge for him.
Then there are his tactical limitations. At current, he doesn’t have anything resembling a statewide organization, and a lot of top talent (such as it is) has already been sucked up by the other candidates. If he is going to win anything, he will have to assemble a more volunteer-laden, amateur grassroots army. It has happened before, and we should never underestimate the power of enthusiasm in politics, but again, this will be no small task.
He is also straddling two worlds, with one foot in each and a presence in neither – he’s not an outsider without a record in politics to assail like Matt Jacobson or Bruce Poliquin, nor is he an experienced old hand insider like Senator Peter Mills. Then again, depending on the mood of the electorate, this could end up being a strength rather than a weakness, as it gives him some legitimacy without being fully polluted by government service.
As it stands now, it seems difficult to imagine he will carve out a large portion of the primary voting public. If he was the conservative consensus running against a pack of moderates, I would see his rise as much more likely. But this particular field has plenty of choices that are solidly conservative, so ideology alone won’t be the deciding factor.
Still, discounting him would be a mistake. There is no question that those who know LePage love him, and the supporters of his that I have encountered have been among the most passionate about their candidate.
In a fractured field of five, six or more candidates, these types of characteristics will be the type of thing that lifts one candidate above the others. Controlling passion, and inspiring a dispirited and motivated core of Republicans could very well be the ticket to the Blaine House.
We shall see. For now, it does seem clear that LePage will be running, and he will start as an underdog. But then again, hasn’t every great political story you have ever read start with an underdog and a dream? Perhaps this one will too.