AUGUSTA, Maine — Tuesday’s election may not have been good for Gov. Paul LePage’s legislative priorities, but it showed his indelible mark on Maine politics.
It’s hard telling what voters indicated by shifting the Maine Legislature only slightly toward the political middle in Tuesday’s election, but what’s seems clear is that it’ll have a check on the Republican governor during his final two years in the Blaine House.
LePage might have greeted Tuesday’s election results with the forlorn knowledge that an uncooperative Legislature stood between him and the legacy of conservative, small-government reform he envisions. But that obstacle was overshadowed when President-elect Donald Trump shocked the world by beating Democrat Hillary Clinton, helped in part by his historic win in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which came after a February endorsement from LePage.
The stunning presidential outcome gives LePage a powerful new ally in Washington and indicates that his political career may not be over in 2018.
The Legislature’s structure will necessitate compromise with LePage doubling down on past, difficult goals for next year’s session.
Democrats picked up two seats in the Maine Senate, but Republicans have a 18-17 majority. In the House of Representatives, Republicans took three more seats, leaving Democrats with a 77-72 majority with two independents — one who beat a Republican, one who beat a Democrat.
This nearly even division of power means that little is likely to change in Augusta, where the Legislature during the past two years often worked around LePage vetoes — such as the 2015 state budget — with some compromises on Maine’s drug crisis and welfare reform sprinkled in.
Now the governor is preparing his 2017 budget proposal. Spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said he’s encouraging a “robust dialogue about reducing taxes, including Maine’s high property taxes, lowering energy prices and improving our education system.”
The Legislature, she said, “must be open to learning the details” of it “prior to issuing judgment.”
None of it looks new: The governor made eliminating Maine’s income tax by his second term a top goal in 2013, championed increasing the natural gas supply and said his next budget won’t fund superintendents in an effort to make school systems more efficient.
Getting all of this done will be difficult. His 2015 budget proposal asked for a reduction to be partially offset by an increase and expansion of the sales tax, but there was little appetite for it in the Legislature, which passed a compromise budget over LePage’s veto.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, drew much of the governor’s ire over that deal, leading to a frosty relationship between LePage and his own party in the Senate. On Thursday, Thibodeau and his leadership team were re-elected to their posts by the new crop of Senate Republicans.
More talk about compromise came from both parties, with Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who is likely to be the next speaker, saying the election told her that people “want to see us operating somewhere that works for everyone” and that she expects a “really positive, honest, no-surprises relationship” with Thibodeau.
“He’s got ideas that sometimes the Legislature agrees with and sometimes it doesn’t,” Thibodeau said of LePage. “He’s going to get some things that he wants, and some things he’s going to be disappointed.”
In an interview with WGAN on Thursday, LePage didn’t sound optimistic about how his big goals would fare in the new Legislature.
“I don’t mean to hedge what they’re going to do, but I don’t trust what they’re going to do,” he said.
Trump’s win shows that the LePage era has changed Maine’s electorate and that we might not have heard the last of him when he leaves Augusta.
LePage’s political career has been a mixed bag: He won two plurality elections but has never been widely popular, usually carrying approval ratings in the neighborhood of 40 percent.
But Maine has become far more conservative during his tenure: When he first won in 2010, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud won the 2nd District by 10 points, even in a year where the party won the governor’s office and full legislative control for the first time since the 1960s.
LePage beat Michaud in 2014 behind a win in the Democrat’s district. Republican Bruce Poliquin, a former state treasurer and LePage ally, succeeded Michaud and won re-election easily over Democrat Emily Cain on Tuesday.
Trump’s win put an exclamation point on that transition, splitting Maine’s electoral votes for the first time in history behind a platform focused on two main issues: A hard line on immigration and opposition to trade deals blamed for manufacturing job losses in rural Maine.
On the Friday before the election, LePage said he wouldn’t cooperate with refugee resettlement in Maine. In practice, it meant nothing. Governors have no control over it and more than 30 Syrian families settled here this year after LePage said he opposed such efforts in late 2015.
Even if it was cynical, it was a canny political play. An exit poll by the Associated Press found that Trump won supporters in Maine — the nation’s whitest state — who flagged immigration as their top issue.
Tuesday fell short of a slam dunk for LePage. Two Maine Senate candidates he supported aggressively — Ricky Long and Guy Lebida — lost, and the state’s voters passed four of five ballot questions that the governor opposed. Question 2, which hiked the tax rate for income over $200,000, and Question 4, which raises the state minimum wage, passed over LePage’s strong objections and despite his frequent lamentations that they would plunge Maine into an economic abyss.
But LePage remained focused Thursday on the political tide largely turning in his favor. In a radio interview, he said Americans “saved the country” by electing Trump. He was asked whether he’d run against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, which he has publicly mulled over the past year.
LePage said he heard a rumor that King, a former governor, would run for the Blaine House. The senator’s office denied it, saying he’s running for re-election.
“If he runs for Senate,” LePage said, “there is a high likelihood that I would run.”
He’d be an underdog. A June poll said that 63 percent of Mainers would back King to 29 percent for LePage.
But Trump also was counted out, and the street-fighting LePage would be a difficult opponent in his new and uncertain Maine.