AUGUSTA, Maine — The vast majority of Republicans in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District would vote for former Gov. Paul LePage if he chooses to run for governor in 2022 regardless of who else was on the primary ballot, according to a poll released Wednesday.
The survey of 604 likely July primary voters in the most conservative population of Maine, which was conducted by SurveyUSA and paid for by the electoral reform group FairVote, shows 71 percent would “definitely vote” for LePage in a primary. Only 21 percent said they would need to know who else is on the ballot and 6 percent said they would back another Republican.
It is one of many polls over the last few years showing the influence of the former two-term governor on the Republican electorate. He looks to have first refusal on his party’s 2022 nomination to face Gov. Janet Mills. The Democrat would be 74 when entering her second term in early 2023, while LePage would be 73 if he returned to the Blaine House.
LePage has kept his influence alive with frequent trips to the state since leaving office. He has teased his intentions to challenge Gov. Janet Mills for months. He told the Bangor Daily News in June he was “99.9 percent” certain he would run after saying publicly that he would give up his Florida residency and move back to Maine in a precursor to any run.
He spent last summer and this one bartending at a Boothbay Harbor restaurant with his wife Ann. He is ceremonially leading the Maine re-election effort for President Donald Trump, greeted the president during his June trip to Maine and sat in on a fisheries roundtable discussion at which Trump named him the chairman of a task force on the industry.
Things have not always been rosy between LePage and his party. He clashed with more moderate Republicans at times during his tenure. He has inserted himself into three legislative primaries on the Tuesday ballot by endorsing insurgents against a slate of candidates preferred by Republican leaders in the Maine Senate.
A LePage return bid, however, could delay the development of younger Republican politicians and dredge up old Augusta fights that Mills leveraged to get elected in 2018. Chief among them was his opposition to Medicaid expansion before and after it was approved by Maine voters. It was left for Mills to implement in the early stages of her tenure.
Republicans may be fine with that as they criticize Mills over economic restrictions related to the coronavirus. The minority party in both legislative chambers wants to repeal her emergency power. Assistant House Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, who is challenging Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, in 2020, said the polling was mostly a reflection on Mills.
He noted she had one of the country’s highest disapproval ratings among governors at 45 percent before the coronavirus hit Maine, though separate polls in March and April found most Mainers supported Mills’ handling of the pandemic. One pegged her approval at 60 percent.
The pandemic “created a unique opportunity to contrast the effectiveness of Governor LePage and Republican economic and fiscal policies in Maine,” Stewart said.
Charlie Webster, who led the Maine Republican Party when LePage was elected in 2010, recalled butting heads with LePage over the former governor’s style and desire to be deeply involved with party leadership, though he blamed the media for negativity around LePage.
Still, Webster said much of that did not matter in the end, because LePage’s policies are still relevant to the party’s overall goals. He praised the former governor’s fiscal policies and welfare reforms, including those that removed thousands from food stamps and placed limits on cash assistance.
But LePage’s future success will largely be determined by what happens at the ballot box in November, Webster said. If Maine’s 2nd District, which went for Trump by 10 points in 2016, instead goes for former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, that could represent a shift he had not expected.
“There are a lot of angry people out there and this election will tell us what they want,” he said.