LEWISTON, Maine — Paul LePage, the outspoken former businessman who rode a Republican wave into the governor’s mansion and late-night talk show jokes in 2010, has won re-election in Maine.
Despite Democrats’ best efforts to turn the gubernatorial race into a referendum on the controversial governor, LePage’s message of lower taxes, leaner, more efficient government and cuts to the welfare rolls won over a base of support that was projected to have grown substantially from the 37.6 percent that elected him in 2010.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who gave up near-certain re-election to Congress to run against LePage, called the Republican to concede sometime around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday. Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who all but dropped out of the race last week, had offered his concession around 10 p.m. Tuesday.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, LePage shook hands, hugged supporters and led the crowd in a chant of “Four more years!” at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, where he grew up. In a victory speech, he said his re-election was part of the larger picture of GOP wins around the country, including the party’s seizing of the majority in the U.S. Senate.
“What we’ve done tonight in America transcends me and every other governor,” he said. “What it is, it’s about the American people. We have spoken. We’ve said enough is enough. We want to go back to the American ideals. Folks, America is the greatest country, and Maine is the best state in the country.”
LePage briefly referenced his hardscrabble upbringing in Lewiston, where he was abused by his father and ran away from home as a pre-teen. LePage’s rags-to-riches story was fodder for campaign ads by national Republican groups, who said his rise from poverty to the governor’s mansion was an example of America’s promise to those who work hard to get ahead.
“Every person born in Maine should have the opportunity to carve out their piece of the American dream. I had it,” he said.
Michaud and his allies spent about $4.4 million more than LePage and his backers. Michaud also benefited from appearances by top-level national Democrats, including President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
LePage was buoyed by five visits from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose Republican Governors Association spent more than $4 million to help LePage cruise back into the Blaine House.
For LePage, victory signaled a validation of his conservative agenda, and a repudiation of his critics’ contention that the governor’s pugnacious style was too brash for the traditionally reserved, moderate politic that had existed in Augusta for decades.
Michaud’s concession speech echoed the tone he set throughout his campaign: He was in it to improve Maine and he knows LePage is, too.
“It was a hard-fought battle but we have nothing to be ashamed of,” said an outwardly upbeat Michaud to an obviously downtrodden crowd. Members of Michaud’s family joined him on the stage to see what was possibly the 30-year public servant’s final speech as an elected official. This was the first election he ever lost.
“This campaign is over but I am counting on you to keep fighting for the hard-working men and women working in this state,” said Michaud. “I want to congratulate Gov. LePage on his re-election and wish him the best over the next four years. … For 15 months we made our case to the Maine people and tonight the voters of Maine have spoken.”
In his concession from Portland’s Ocean Gateway, Cutler vowed to work toward ways that would improve chances for future independent candidates.
“I’m going to spend an awful lot of time over the next year trying to get ranked choice voting implemented in Maine,” Cutler said. “I think it will get rid of the negative campaigning, it will get rid of the negative advertising and restore civil discourse.”
About whether he’d considered running for another office after this: “Who knows? Never say never.”
In his victory speech, LePage said the campaign had elevated his respect for Cutler and that Cutler would make an excellent attorney general.
Despite being the most expensive gubernatorial contest in the state’s history — outside groups spent nearly $11.8 million attempting to buy the Blaine House — the shape of the race had remained stable for the past several months. Nearly every independent poll showed a statistical tie between Michaud and LePage, with Cutler trailing far behind.
Those get-out-the-vote efforts seemed to bear fruit Tuesday, when turnout across Maine was higher than expected in other parts of the country, bolstered in no small part by a gubernatorial race that has dominated the campaign cycle.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said more than 55 percent of registered voters likely would have cast ballots on Tuesday. That’s a higher turnout than some states see in presidential election years.
LePage spokesman Alex Willette said the Republican incumbent got a boost from higher-than-expected turnout, which he attributed to a bear hunting referendum that energized hunters and sportsmen, two blocs in LePage’s base.
During the campaign, LePage promised to continue trimming state budgets, paying off debt and cutting Maine’s welfare rolls. The governor also pledged to pursue right-to-work legislation in a second term in office, a move that would hobble Maine’s unions — one of the governor’s chief political adversaries.
Michaud campaigned on a promise to expand Medicaid coverage to about 70,000 low-income Mainers under the Affordable Care Act, a move LePage vetoed five times. He also emphasized the need to bolster Maine’s struggling manufacturing sector and a plan for the state to pay the tuition of sophomores at Maine’s public universities and colleges. Michaud said that plan would help more students graduate from college.
Cutler also said he’d expand Medicaid, but he focused most of his campaign’s attention on a tax reform plan that would reduce local property taxes and increase education funding by hiking the state’s sales tax.
BDN State House Bureau Chief Christopher Cousins in Portland and Sun Journal State Politics Editor Scott Thistle in Lewiston contributed to this report. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.