AUGUSTA, Maine — News on Wednesday that Republican Gov. Paul LePage had won another four years undoubtedly was a surprise to some.
Given the governor’s below-water approval ratings and tendency for controversial statements that have made him the subject of punch lines and opinion columns nationwide, some corners of Maine’s political establishment had assumed for years he would be a one-term executive in the traditionally moderate Maine.
But the numbers proved them wrong: With 95 percent of precincts reporting, LePage had about 48 percent of the vote, about 10 percent more than he carried in 2010. His Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, had received 43 percent of the vote. Independent Eliot Cutler, who nearly bested LePage in 2010, received just 8 percent.
How did LePage — a former businessman and survivor of poverty and domestic violence — spoil so many expectations? Here are three things that contributed to LePage’s victory.
The Republican field operation was underestimated. LePage’s re-election was buoyed by some external factors, namely that midterm elections tend to favor the party out of power in the White House and the presence on the ballot of a bear-baiting referendum spurred turnout of voters amenable to the governor.
However, a concerted effort by the Maine GOP to modernize its campaign machine helped the party identify, energize and turn out the governor’s supporters.
Part of that effort came down to personnel: The party hired Lance Henderson, on loan from the Republican Governors Association, to lead the GOP’s coordinated campaign. Henderson is a field-op veteran who created the Republican Governors Association’s first 50-state voter database in 1996.
For most of the past decade, Democrats have held an advantage in the “ground game,” and they were responsible for the creation of a digital campaign toolbox that helped the party sweep Congress and the White House in 2008. Democrats also are usually thought to have an edge in traditional “get-out-the-vote” efforts, thanks to the scores of union members and other volunteers willing to make phone calls and knock on doors.
“Our field efforts in the past were behind those of the Democrats,” said Maine Republican Party spokesman David Sorensen on Wednesday. “We really caught up in this cycle. We built a modern database of voters that we used to identify supporters of all parties and help them vote early or turn them out on Election Day. We had remarkable success.”
LePage cleaned up his image. Democrats sought to turn the election into a referendum on LePage. They emphasized his brash, combative style; his record-setting number of vetoes and other state House antics that they said showed he was an embarrassing, erratic bully. Off-the-cuff remarks, including the sometimes vulgar insults hurled at his opponents, provided endless campaign fodder.
LePage addressed this perceived weakness head-on. “Actions speak louder than words” became the slogan of his campaign as he and his allies sought to downplay his style and emphasize the jobs created under his watch and his record of cutting taxes, repaying debt and slashing welfare rolls.
During one debate, LePage rebuked the idea that he couldn’t work across the aisle. Michaud had campaigned as a bridge-builder, thanks to his record of bipartisanship in the state Legislature and in Congress.
For example, LePage said that in the past two years, two-thirds of bills submitted became law, most of which were proposed by Democrats.
“So who is working across party lines, and who is getting it done?” he said.
By brushing aside criticism about his style, LePage was able to shape the conversation throughout the gubernatorial campaign. He focused on job creation, welfare reform, immigration and fiscal responsibility. Michaud was largely left to respond to the agenda set by the governor.
“Gov. LePage had the bully pulpit and was able to state his case time and time again,” said Rachel Irwin, the Maine Democrats’ spokeswoman. “Those last four or five months of the campaign, he definitely rebranded his image. He positioned himself really well, but I’m not sure it was truthful for what we saw in his first four years.”
The three-way race helped LePage but not the way many expected. After 2010, many Democrats cast Cutler as a spoiler, arguing he split LePage’s opposition and cleared a path for his victory. This year, Michaud’s campaign sought to marginalize Cutler in an effort to unite the anti-LePage vote. Still many feared Cutler’s candidacy would help LePage.
In the end, LePage’s victory was substantial enough that it’s unlikely Cutler’s absence would have resulted in a victory for the Democrat. But that doesn’t mean LePage didn’t benefit from Cutler’s campaign.
Doug Hodgkins, professor emeritus at Bates College, said that by constantly attacking Michaud’s sometimes spotty record on gay rights and abortion and criticizing the lack of detail in his policy proposals, Cutler put chinks in Michaud’s armor that benefitted LePage. Michaud generally ignored Cutler’s attacks, which only fueled the criticism that he had no answers.
“In the debates and in his comments, he showed Michaud didn’t really have a plan, didn’t have a program, didn’t have any way to pay for what he proposed,” Hodgkins said. “Michaud had not had opposition like that in his congressional races. Those races don’t put a particular premium on leadership. But when voters were looking for the executive demeanor they want in governor, they didn’t see that in Michaud.”
Irwin said she also believed that Cutler helped LePage win by eating away at Michaud’s largest advantage — his likability.
“It was a tough race, and I think that came into play for Mike not coming across as well as he could have, and not being able to stand up to both his opponents,” she said.
While Cutler may have inadvertently aided LePage, the governor didn’t peg his own strategy only to the dynamics of the three-way race. He turned to the same charismatic, retail politics that he so effectively deployed on the campaign trail to grow the coalition that elected him in 2010 — enough to ensure victory over a candidate widely believed to be the Democrats’ best shot at making him a one-term governor.
With a new Republican majority in the Senate and no future election in sight, LePage is poised to more aggressively pursue his agenda in the next two years.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.