Republican Gov. Paul LePage is still the dominant Republican figure in Maine and will be for some time to come, judging by responses given during a debate Monday by the five Republicans who are seeking to replace him.

One thing the electorate is looking for in the Republican field is to what degree the candidates embrace or eschew the governor’s legacy. Answer: they’ll fully embrace him.

There was a lot of discussion about how LePage has put Maine on a more responsible and sustainable fiscal course, though Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport and businessman Shawn Moody of Gorham sought to distance themselves from LePage’s gruff verbal tone. That’s despite the fact that with the exception of Moody, who LePage hasn’t officially endorsed but is clearly supporting, LePage has publicly spurned at least three of the other candidates.

Primary elections drive candidates to the extremes of their party ideologies and that was on display in Monday’s debate. There was lots of discussion about building upon LePage’s legacy of cutting taxes and reducing the role of government in business and individuals’ lives, making this year’s election a contest about who is most fiscally conservative. At one point as the candidates were making promises on those points, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls said his priority as governor would be to “give you back as much money as possible.”

Former Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of South China talked a lot about her tenure at the department, and will continue to, which she characterized as “hemorrhaging red ink” before she and LePage arrived, though she’ll have to go from offense to defense on that point when she faces Democrats and their claims about cutting social services for Maine’s most vulnerable people.

“We’re not done” will be a recurring theme in the campaign. Concurrent with trying to distinguish themselves in the primary field, the Republicans obviously have the Democrats and the general election to think about and there is no message other than continuity that makes sense for the Republicans. However, they will have to grapple with some of the LePage administration’s failures, such as oversight of the embattled Riverview Psychiatric Center and the fact that drug overdose deaths are continuing to increase despite an ongoing debate in Augusta for the past several years about how to address Maine’s opiates crisis. Remarkably, the subject of drug addiction didn’t come up until about midway through the one-hour debate when Fredette identified it as the most serious issue facing Maine.

Three of the five Republican legislative leaders are in this race, putting microscopes on everything they do at the State House. Thibodeau, Mason and Fredette as legislative leaders are already at the forefront of just about anything that happens in the Legislature, but their actions will face increasingly intense political scrutiny as the campaign deepens. For example, they’ll likely be forced to cast votes this afternoon on the Legislative Council about whether to allow the full Legislature to consider a number of after-deadline bills, including one to denounce neo-Nazi groups in a joint resolution that has been kicking around since December, a ban on bump stocks and other gun control measures, and a $20 million bond proposal to support school safety projects. Also coming up is a new LePage bill that appears on today’s House calendar, which seeks to require voters to show identification at the polls — even though that concept has failed multiple times in recent years.

This is shaping up to be an insider vs. outsider race. While none of the candidates can fully claim to come from outside the political bubble — even Moody, with his 2010 gubernatorial bid under his belt — Mayhew and Moody will aggressively distance themselves from the Legislature and by extension, the other GOP candidates. That “outsider” persona worked well for LePage and President Donald Trump, but hints of backlash are appearing, with some insiders taking to social media to portray the duo as disconnected, unprepared and unfit for office.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.