BANGOR, Maine — Attendees at this year’s Maine Republican Convention got exactly what they came for: Rousing campaign speeches, political red meat, and the assurance from party leaders and candidates that they have what it takes to defeat Democrats in November.
From Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s often funny speech about the need to expand the Republican base to Gov. Paul LePage’s promise to continue fighting for more responsible government, each speaker rallied the roughly 2,000 party faithful at the Cross Insurance Center to pledge their time and money to get Republicans elected.
LePage said he predicted his own opponents — Democratic candidate Rep. Mike Michaud, and independent businessman Eliot Cutler — and their supporters to wage “the nastiest campaign you’ve ever seen.” But he pledged he would do his part to earn Mainers’ votes.
“I will continue, with every breath in my body, to work for the underdog, for the Maine people, against the special interests,” he said. “That I can do, and I do it well. Folks, as we move forward in the campaign, there is not one day that goes by where I don’t think about the Maine people and the future prosperity of our state.”
The governor closed out the day’s events with a near hourlong speech, during which he touted his accomplishments since being elected: Pension reform that saved the state roughly $1.7 billion, making overdue Medicaid payments to Maine’s hospitals worth about $183 million, instituting the largest income tax cut in Maine history, and his repeated success in defeating Medicaid expansion and other bills through liberal use of the veto pen.
He also criticized his 2014 gubernatorial opponents. Like other speakers before him, he painted Michaud as an inconsequential figure in Congress and Cutler — a former member of President Jimmy Carter’s administration — as a Washington interloper.
Both, he said, were tax-and-spend liberals. In this crowd, that may have been the worst insult he could levy.
“While I’m in favor of putting more money back in your pockets, I assure you, Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler will pick your pockets,” he said. “Neither will hesitate to increase taxes, to raise spending whether we need it or not.”
Electoral victory for LePage, and for the full slate of Republican candidates running for the Maine Legislature, is not a foregone conclusion. In 2010, LePage won a three-way election by a slim margin, buoyed by a relatively weak Democratic candidate and by a strong showing from Cutler, who also ran that year.
This year, with the much stronger Michaud candidacy (he’d be the nation’s first openly gay man to be elected governor) and a Cutler campaign that seems to be languishing in the polls, LePage’s fate is again uncertain.
In the Legislature, Democrats control majorities in both the 35-member House and 151-member Senate. Republicans will need to hold every seat they have and pick up three more in the Senate and 18 more in the House to win majorities.
That’s a tall order for a party that’s held majorities only once in the last four decades, though some in the GOP take solace that those majorities were also won when LePage topped the ticket, in 2010.
Prior to LePage’s speech, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite and son of the libertarian icon and former Texas congressman Ron Paul, gave a folksy speech about the party’s need to expand its base. It’s a theme Paul has made in speeches around the country as he increases his profile ahead of a potential presidential run in 2016.
Paul’s appearance thrilled the increasingly dominant libertarian faction of Maine’s GOP. Nationally, he said, Republicans would not win if they did not win over voters that have traditionally leaned toward Democrats, namely women, young people and minorities.
“We need to get away from letting the Democrats say ‘We care about everybody.’ They may care, but you know what I say about liberals: Big heart, and small brain,” he said to applause. “We need to show people, the unemployed, those who are hurting, show them that we care, and that it’s just our policies are different.”
Maine’s senior senator, Susan Collins, also spoke. She’s up for re-election, and faces a challenge from Shenna Bellows, a former director of the ACLU of Maine and leader in the successful 2012 effort to legalize same-sex marriage.
She criticized President Barack Obama for what she called “empty promises” about his signature domestic policy victory, the Affordable Care Act. Obama had promised Americans that if they liked their current health insurance plan, they could keep it. But that turned out to be untrue, as many health care plans were deemed noncompliant with new ACA requirements.
Collins — the most popular political figure in Maine — said the Republican Party offered a different kind of promise: “If you like your Constitution, you can keep your Constitution.”
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said that given LePage’s record of controversial statements and an agenda that opponents have called a “war on the poor,” he’s confident of Democrats’ chances in November. Nationally, LePage is often referred to as one of the most vulnerable Republican governors in the country.
“I’m pretty comfortable with our position right now,” he said. “I’m really excited there’s so much enthusiasm on our side to send Paul LePage home, and I’m sure we’ll have a big turnout for Democrats this year.”
LePage said he wasn’t worried about his perceived tendency to put his foot in his mouth.
“They may criticize the way I say things, but they sure can’t criticize how I do things,” he said. “We get it done.”
BDN staff writer Nick McCrea contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.