This past two weeks, I have been vacationing in Maine (you may have noticed Pine Tree Politics was a little quiet). While there, I had the pleasure of getting a much better picture of the Maine political scene, by way of meeting with literally dozens of lawmakers, candidates, and opinion leaders throughout the state. It was a productive vacation, to say the least.
One of the more interesting things I learned, however, is that Paul LePage, the Republican Mayor of very Democratic Waterville is in all likelihood “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 serious 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.
The interesting thing to me is that LePage had mostly fallen off my radar. 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 (or at least seemed very skeptical) 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 for me to take it 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 thsoe with low attention spans, I’ll give you a quick rundown.
LePage is not well known outside his little pocket of Maine. He is the current Mayor of Waterville, Maine, 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? I have my doubts.
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. His ardent support for TABOR will certainly hurt him in certain areas of Maine who remain skeptical of what they see as a gimmicky proposal that will hamstring local communities. He will likely have a difficult time selling himself in the land of the urban south and surrounding suburbs.
He doesn’t have anything resembling a statewide organization, and a lot of top talent has already been sucked up by the other candidates. 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.
This makes it hard for me to imagine him carving out a large number of voters as a legitimate base – there are plenty of other contenders who are plenty conservative enough to satisfy the primary voters, and they have other circumstances that make them more attractive.
Still, anything is possible – and his presence in the race will further fragment the GOP toward a repeat of the election of 1994. This means the winner of the primary could very well win with 20% of the vote, and in that scenario, it is anyone’s game.