AUGUSTA, Maine — Thanks to the Internet and its 24-hour news cycle, images of an angry Paul LePage storming out of a Monday news conference have been seen by voters throughout Maine.
Whether the incident will influence how those voters cast their ballots on Nov. 2 remains to be seen, but political observers said Tuesday that LePage’s on-camera outburst likely will help him in some political circles — and hurt him in others.
Voters also may consider whether the blowup was an isolated incident, according to Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin College professor and longtime observer of Maine politics.
“It’s containable once,” Potholm said, adding that if such behavior becomes part of a pattern, the GOP front-runner may suffer at the polls.
On Monday, LePage was wrapping up a 20-minute press conference in Augusta on his policy agenda for Maine when the dust-up began.
While the LePage campaign dismissed as a “paperwork error” a property tax issue involving his wife’s two homes in Maine and Florida, reporters pressed him for answers to additional questions.
In the ensuing exchange, LePage angrily accused the press of engaging in tabloid journalism and stormed out of the room. He then used an expletive when asked about the issue later at a Portland news conference.
By the time a much calmer LePage returned to the State House press corps later in the day to explain his outburst and answer questions, the television cameras were gone, and video and audio clips of his heated exchanges with reporters were already circulating on the Web.
Potholm speculated that some people in LePage’s conservative, Republican base likely will see the commotion as yet another example that “the media was picking on our guy,” while supporters of Democrat Libby Mitchell will feel reassured in their choice.
It’s the voters who were thinking about casting their ballots for LePage — but are not 100 percent committed — that could have second thoughts, he said. But LePage is also known for speaking off the cuff and speaking his mind, he added.
“If you buy Paul LePage, this is what you buy: the outspokenness, the emotion and everything else,” said Potholm, who leans Republican in his own politics.
Sandy Maisel, another veteran political watcher who teaches at Colby College, agreed that the clash with media may not harm LePage too much with his core constituency, who are “all for him anyway.”
But Maisel, who is active in Democratic circles, said it’s unlikely to help him win over independent voters or woo Democrats who were already leaning toward Mitchell or independent Eliot Cutler.
Maisel described the footage of LePage’s exchange with the press as “not a positive image,” especially for a Maine GOP often associated with moderates such as Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.
“I don’t think this is in the Maine tradition, and I think that hurts him,” Maisel said.
If elected governor, LePage certainly wouldn’t be the first Maine politician with a reputation for a short fuse.
Both Maisel and Potholm, as well as Doug Hodgkin, a retired professor emeritus at Bates College, all mentioned the late Gov. Jim Longley as someone in recent history who was well-known for dressing down reporters and politicians in public.
Longley was elected to the Blaine House as an independent in 1974 during the post-Watergate era when — like today — many people were frustrated with politicians and politics as usual, Hodgkin said.
Longley’s sometimes confrontational style didn’t appear to hurt him with the public, said Hodgkin, who predicted that he would have easily won re-election had he chosen to seek a second term. (Longley died not long after leaving office).
So could LePage benefit from the same anti-government and anti-politician sentiment?
“Given the context [today] of people being angry with government and being upset with slick politicians, someone who comes off as speaking his own mind and letting the chips fall as they may can be very refreshing to voters,” Hodgkin said.
There also is a contingent of voters who may view the media coverage of LePage’s press conference as biased or sensationalistic. After all, Hodgkin said, it’s easier and more exciting for the press to focus on a candidate’s outburst than spend the time delving into the complex issues facing the next governor, such as the estimated $1 billion budget deficit.
But that’s not to say the incident is without risk, he said.
“It can hurt, because these events are usually recorded and they can be taken out of context and used by the competition in campaign ads,” Hodgkin said.
Sure enough, the Maine Democratic Party and then the Democratic National Committee circulated e-mails Tuesday featuring clips or links to the videos. The incident also caught the attention of some national press.
In an interview Monday, LePage attributed his anger to the questions to the fact that he is “overly protective” of his family, due, in large part, to his own experiences growing up. He also accused Democrats of going after his family after failing to dig up political dirt on himself.
“I believe the press has a responsibility to honor … my family’s privacy,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with them attacking me. … I am fair game.”