With the buildup to the 2018 election in full frenzy, Maine’s political spotlight is shifting away from Gov. Paul LePage to the 20 candidates and counting who want to replace him.
Roughly 14 months before his second term ends, that appears to be the way the Republican governor wants it.
With the exception of his fervent public opposition to Questions 1 and 2 on the November ballot, LePage has made few appearances for the general public. Among those, only a fraction have come with advance notice.
For a governor who adopted a “People Before Politics” campaign slogan, conducted dozens of wide-open town hall meetings and for months kept a clockwork schedule of local radio appearances, that’s a major change.
LePage can still propose bills when the Legislature returns to the State House in January, and he can still arrange and rearrange the gears and cogs of the executive branch to solidify the fiscally conservative course he’s set for state government. But he can’t change the fact he’s a lame duck.
Governors approaching the end of their second terms often scale back their public profiles, but rarely to the degree that LePage has in recent months.
Is he shifting his tone so he’s remembered as much for his policy accomplishments as his brash rhetoric? Is he polishing his image in preparation for life after the Blaine House?
We don’t know. The governor stopped talking to reporters years ago, and his communications staff rarely responds to questions.
Here’s what we do know:
He definitely doesn’t want the public to know where he’s going. LePage’s office hasn’t shared his public schedule regularly since his first term. His travels are often revealed by after-the-fact social media posts or from the entities he’s visiting. The Bangor Daily News requested a rundown of his public events in October. When the administration failed to respond, the BDN filed Freedom of Access Act requests for LePage’s weekly schedules. Other than an Oct. 17 acknowledgement that one of the public records requests had been received, there has been no response.
“We may only respond to your request to the extent that the governor’s office has custody of the requested materials,” the response read, adding that under public records laws “we are not required to create a record that does not exist.”
Fighting with journalists is part of his public image. LePage has long complained about the Maine media, especially newspapers, and attacks them regularly. He has also threatened, or quipped about threatening, individual companies and their employees going back to the 2010 campaign. He has said he wanted to blow up a Portland newspaper and that he wanted to punch a Maine Public reporter. In one of his rare recent public comments, he said he sometimes makes up stories to mislead the media. In August, he called reporters “ pencil terrorists.”
After years of blunt talk that often fueled opponents’ outrage, LePage has shifted from dialogue to monologue. In recent months, the administration has communicated in ways that are less conducive to give-and-take and the off-the-cuff comments that became the focus of Maine’s political news cycle when LePage made them during radio interviews. His scripted radio addresses and letters to lawmakers offer no opportunity for opposition, response or requests for clarification. He almost never holds news conferences.
University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer said he has noticed a change in LePage’s communications strategy and that the most “jarring” is the end of LePage’s radio appearances.
“For a long time, those were his primary means of communicating with anyone,” said Brewer, who noted that it’s not uncommon for a Maine governor to change communication style near the end of his tenure.
Democrat John Baldacci dialed back his public communications in the months before he left office in 2010, after a bruising second term that caved his popularity among voters, even those in his own party.
LePage has also had popularity problems. Only 32 percent favored him in a Critical Insights poll last fall, though that improved to 41 percent this year. But his base of support is loyal and strong. Brewer suggested any toned-down LePage communications style could be temporary.
“I don’t see Paul LePage going gently into the good night,” Brewer said. “That just doesn’t strike me as his personality.”
In some ways he is polishing and protecting his legacy. A week after this month’s election, LePage used a radio address to say he will try to block the Medicaid expansion bill favored by 59 percent of Mainers on Nov. 7 by opposing various funding plans that could be implemented by the Legislature. A day later, he wrote a letter to state that his administration would not produce a supplemental budget bill in 2018 for any reason, even though he wrote that some agencies had requested additional funding.
“Rather than focus on an unnecessary supplemental budget package, I intend to use my final legislative session in office to affirm key advances in our state under my administration and to pursue further reforms,” he wrote.
During the legislative session that starts in January, he can exercise his executive authority largely without concern that it would alienate voters. Meanwhile, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette and Attorney General Janet Mills — all of whom are running for governor — will have to weigh the political repercussions of policy fights with LePage
As LePage mutes his Maine image, he’s pushing harder at the federal level. In the past few months, LePage has made repeated trips to Washington, D.C., which has proven a much more welcome venue since the election of Donald Trump than it was under Democrat Barack Obama, at whom LePage volleyed attacks from home. In September, when the U.S. Senate was about to vote on a repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, LePage appeared in Washington with Vice President Mike Pence to pressure Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to support the bill. Both held firm in their opposition, despite heavy pressure from LePage. In early November, he went back to Washington to testify against a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District that seeks to set up a grant program to improve commercial and recreational access to coastal waters.
This looks a lot more like a politician cementing his legacy than one who is courting public support for an agenda. He is using allies in Washington to pressure other Maine politicians, which is a shift. When Obama was president, he put more focus on rallying Mainers to line up behind his efforts to play defense against Obama policies and initiatives. LePage has also found a national audience — both in the media and on Capitol Hill — for his support of various Trump policies. Most notable among those are LePage’s support for the president’s immigration and health care stances.
This month’s passage of a Medicaid expansion referendum was arguably the governor’s biggest defeat after having vetoed the concept five times and campaigned against it for years. But he still has potent tools at his disposal, and with term limits pushing him out of office, he’s no longer courting voters.
Communicating through scripted radio addresses and letters reflects a messaging discipline that’s been rare during LePage’s years in the Blaine House, but it could reflect well on how history views his governorship and how the campaign to replace him takes shape.
Though LePage has not endorsed anyone in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, the people around him, including his daughter Lauren LePage and long-time strategist Brent Littlefield, are working for Shawn Moody, who recently enrolled as a Republican and announced his candidacy.
In addition to those obvious connections, Moody has other similarities with LePage. He comes to the race as a businessman with no elected experience and a staunchly conservative approach.
“I know going without can be a pretty good motivator,” Moody said at his campaign announcement.
That sounds a lot like what LePage would say, if he was talking.
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