AUGUSTA, Maine — The theory of a possible political shakeup that could put Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage in the position to pick a U.S. senator is picking up subscribers, prompted by a Democratic bill signaling LePage’s rivals are wary of the possibility.
LD 850, offered by state Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, seeks to change the way Maine would fill any potential vacancy to the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.
The measure — not yet scheduled for a public hearing — is fueling speculation U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, is eyeing a bid for the Maine governor’s office in 2018, two years shy of the end of her current and fourth Senate term, which ends in 2020.
By seeking to block LePage’s ability to nominate a replacement for Collins, Moonen’s bill may signal that Democrats are worried about the possibility.
The bill faces scant chance of passage in a state Senate now held by Republicans, as it offers sweeping changes to state law requiring the governor to call for a special primary election and then a special election to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
The cost of any additional statewide elections also could be a factor that would hinder the bill’s chances.
Under current law, Maine’s governor appoints a replacement when a vacancy occurs before the end of the six-year term of a sitting U.S. senator.
The last time a Maine governor appointed a U.S. senator was in May 1980, when Democratic Gov. Joseph Brennan appointed George Mitchell to finish the term of U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie.
Muskie, a Rumford native, had just been appointed secretary of state by President Jimmy Carter.
Moonen’s bill, which aims at giving the right of replacing a U.S. senator to the voters, and its timing are raising eyebrows in Augusta and in Washington, D.C.
A call to Moonen on Friday was not immediately returned.
Brent Littlefield, LePage’s top political consultant and a policy adviser to the governor, dismissed the speculation Friday, saying LePage is far less focused on the possible political machinations of 2018 and more interested in advancing his current budget and tax proposal.
“The governor is focused on cutting the income tax, not playing politics,” Littlefield said.
Meanwhile, three of Collins’ 2014 re-election campaign workers and one of her former U.S. Senate staffers have taken jobs in Maine’s State House, working for the Republican Party caucus and on the staff of the Republican Senate president.
One Democratic lawmaker, speaking on background, said it was clear Collins was at least considering a bid for the governor’s office and her former staffers, now in Augusta, were equivalent to a scouting party or an advance team assessing the lay of the state’s political landscape.
LePage’s State House communications staff also were largely nonchalant about Moonen’s legislation, brushing it off as party politics.
“This is just one of many bills we’ve seen coming from Democrats this session that seek to undermine the governor’s executive branch powers,” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said. Bennett said she couldn’t comment on the political optics of the bill but agreed it was vaguely interesting.
The implications of Moonen’s legislation remain intriguing because a scenario might play out where Collins wins the governor’s race and LePage finds himself in the position to appoint a U.S. senator, presumably a Republican who will have two years to develop a de facto incumbency, name recognition and campaign war chest for a solid 2020 election bid.
The development has Maine Democrats scrambling because it sets up not only a situation where Republicans potentially could hold the governor’s office for 16 consecutive years, but also one that keeps them from a seat in the U.S. Senate for a third straight decade.
Also in play is whether LePage would be bold enough to appoint himself to Collins’ vacated seat — or would Maine’s senior U.S. senator, who could make history as the state’s first female governor, want to practice her veto power on any proposal to replace her in Washington?
LePage has hinted, at least once, he might make a bid for a congressional seat, only later to suggest he was only joking.
Collins also could hold substantial financial sway in any arrangement: Her U.S. Senate re-election campaign war chest, with nearly $5 million in it already, could be turned over to a candidate or political action committee of her choice.
Republican and Democratic insiders in Augusta and Washington say the subject of a Collins’ run for governor in 2018 is regular dinner-table discussion.
But few would speculate on the record about what could be a historic capstone for Collins’ career as one of Maine’s best-liked politicians.
Others said Collins may be hesitant to leave the U.S. Senate because recent resignations and elections have left her with increasingly more seniority and power in a body that runs on seniority.
On the other hand, the governorship could be a vindication for Collins, who lost her one bid for governor to independent Angus King in 1994 in the only statewide race she ever lost.
Political observers frequently mention how she and her husband, Thomas Daffron, are spending increasing amounts of time in the Pine Tree State and how Collins enjoys being home.
A Collins’ governorship would be a major victory for Maine Republicans, securing additional votes from women as well as a hand-picked successor in the U.S. Senate for two years.
Collins and LePage still have sound differences on a small quiver of social hot-button issues.
While Collins has been a supporter of abortion rights, LePage has been solidly “pro-life” and opposed to abortion in most instances. The two also differ on same-sex marriage. Collins in 2014 said she supported the right of gay and lesbian couples to be married under the law; LePage has remained more or less neutral on the issue.