Gov. Janet Mills listens as Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks Wednesday at his final, regular pandemic press briefing in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A national Republican group was quick to put out a statement hammering Gov. Janet Mills after former Gov. Paul LePage officially filed to face her in 2022 last week.

But the sharpest criticism directed at Mills in the past few weeks has been from fellow Democrats as she came into conflict with progressives, ultimately vetoing more than a dozen progressive bills including several on criminal justice, tribal gaming and prescription drug prices.

It is the sort of division LePage and his Republican allies could benefit from in 2022, especially if a third-party candidate joins a race that will not use ranked-choice voting. But despite objections from fellow Democrats on policy in recent weeks, there is little sign that liberals would abandon Mills in big numbers, with lawmakers who have criticized the governor still likely to support her.

Progressives were “disappointed” by her vetoes, viewing them as a wasted opportunity to pass ambitious legislation with a trifecta in Augusta, said Betsy Sweet, a progressive lobbyist who finished in third place behind Mills in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary. But she also noted Mills’ COVID-19 response and proposals to increase child care funding as positives.

“There have been some really good things done,” she said. “This is not all about vetoes.”

The open divisions are somewhat new for Mills, who was quick to reverse controversial LePage policies after riding into the Blaine House with full Democratic control of the Legislature in 2018. She signed an order to expand Medicaid on her first day in office.

Last year’s legislative session was cut short with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which abruptly flipped the tenor of Mills’ first term from good times to crisis. But Maine weathered the pandemic relatively well and federal funding helped avert what could have been a state budget crisis, allowing for a new, bipartisan state budget that met Maine’s K-12 education funding goal for the first time. While Mills has sharply raised state spending, she has held the line on taxes.

Behind that approach, Mills has weathered limited backlash given increasing polarization. She maintained a 57 percent approval rating in a Digital Research Inc. poll released last month, which is 10 points higher than LePage’s highest mark during his tenure as governor.

Mills’ careful path so far made recent criticism from Democrats stand out. Maine Conservation Voters, which endorsed Mills during the 2018 general election campaign, said it was “disappointed” in Mills after she vetoed a bill to ban the use of aerial herbicides. Maine Youth Justice, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform, called Mills’ veto of a bill to close Maine’s only youth prison “a grave misstep.”

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said Mills “did not have the courage” to stand up to pharmaceutical companies after she vetoed bills he championed targeting prescription drug prices. (Mills, in her veto message, argued the bills would be unlikely to withstand constitutional scrutiny and may not accomplish Jackson’s intended goals.)

That was a sharp remark, but the Mills squabbles look quaint next to the wars between LePage and Senate Republicans. The latter group largely allied with Democrats on budget issues in the run-up to a 2017 government shutdown. LePage vetoed a record 642 bills during his tenure in a mostly divided government; Mills has vetoed 16 as of Friday after 10 in her first two years in office. Two Democratic-led Legislatures have sustained all vetoes so far.

Mills’ recent decisions have also kept her in good graces with groups that might be more likely to oppose her. Ben Lucas, executive director of the Maine Jobs Council, a conservative-leaning business advocacy group, pointed to a bill aimed at reforming the unemployment system as the only recent major one the governor backed that was opposed by the business community.

Mills vetoed several other bills that business interests had spoken against, including a graduated real estate tax and a bill limiting referendum spending by companies owned by foreign governments.

“We certainly appreciate the governor holding the line on a lot of these very anti-jobs proposals,” Lucas said.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a moderate who praised Mills’ recent vetoes, said there would be “a clear philosophical difference” between the governor and LePage. Sweet said progressives would not defect, but that their enthusiasm to help Mills could wane due to recent actions.

“They’re not going to vote for LePage,” she said. “But I think it’s really the difference between voting, and then enthusiastically working, canvassing and helping.”

Mills has not formally launched her reelection campaign, though she resumed fundraising in late March. The campaign against her has already begun, with the Republican Governors Association, in a statement after LePage filed, saying she had “driven Maine into a ditch with her extreme liberal pet projects.”

Advocates have still begun to step up on her behalf. Recent bills, such as the bipartisan budget, showed Mills is willing to work with conservatives and progressives to achieve shared goals, said Emily Cain, a former Maine lawmaker who now is executive director of EMILY’s List, a group that helps elect Democratic women and aided Mills in the 2018 primary.

“When you consider the combination of the pandemic, along with heightened partisanship in our country, Janet has remained true to her Maine values with every decision that she has made,” Cain said.