AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Gov. Paul LePage is presenting a united front with Republican lawmakers as he gears up to run for governor again, positioning himself as more of a party builder than the insurgent role he held in recent election cycles.
The former two-term governor is set to formally kick off his 2022 challenge to Gov. Janet Mills with a rally at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday. His intent to run cleared the Republican field, with the state party, which usually abstains from primaries, already backing him formally.
While LePage has remained relatively quiet since filing to run this summer — a move that allowed him to begin fundraising — he has attempted to strike a conciliatory tone in early campaign appearances across the state, pitching a message of party unity alongside a slate of new and old policy ideas.
“We’re going to go out and recruit candidates that work on our program, and for once, for the next year, we’re going to campaign as one voice, instead of multiple voices,” he said at an event hosted by the conservative Maine Policy Institute last month.
Such a remark might seem typical from a former governor attempting to lead the party to another term. But it is notable for LePage, who sometimes clashed with legislative leaders from his own party during his two terms as governor. The shift in tone comes as Maine Republicans look to break through the Democratic trifecta in Augusta in 2022 after four years out of power. Democrats currently hold 80 of 151 seats in the Maine House and 22 of 35 seats in the Senate.
“He knows that he needs to work with the House and the Senate,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, who was among LePage’s allies in the Legislature. “He knows that in order to accomplish what he would like to accomplish he’s going to have to work with everybody.”
It is a far cry from the former governor’s first term, when combative comments, like telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” drew condemnation from members of his party, with Republicans saying he distracted from the party’s agenda in the two years they had full control in Augusta. In 2015, a political group then run by his daughter ran robocalls critical of Republican senators with whom LePage was feuding, though the governor denied involvement.
The conflict persisted to at least a small degree as recently as 2020, when LePage backed challengers to two incumbent Republican senators against the wishes of the caucus’ political committee. (His preferred candidates lost their primaries.) He does not seem likely to do that in 2022, although his campaign declined to answer questions about it, with strategist Brent Littlefield saying LePage’s “entire focus” was on the economy and education.
LePage has attempted to present a softer version of himself on the campaign trail this summer, telling supporters he intends to be less controversial. But he has still shown a combative and prevaricating side, falsely telling supporters at least twice this summer that Maine had the highest nursing home COVID-19 death rate among states when it had one of the lowest.
He has been regularly pictured on Maine’s agricultural fair circuit this year, often alongside local lawmakers. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, who has spent time with LePage on the trail around the capital area in recent months, said the former governor seems more “mellow” now, and spent more time listening at stops than talking.
Three years in the minority in Augusta have been a uniting factor for Republicans, as lawmakers have been almost always unsuccessful in efforts to push back against Mills on a range of issues, including pandemic executive orders. Many of the current crop of Republican lawmakers also rose in local politics under LePage, unlike many of the lawmakers with whom he used to war.
“As somebody who served with the governor for six of his eight years in office, we often butted heads on different things, but I can tell you right now, I’m pro-having Paul LePage back in Augusta,” Pouliot said. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
The best-case scenario for the GOP in 2022 would be a repeat of 2010 elections, when LePage won his first term and the party swept control of the Maine House and Senate after nearly eight years of Democratic control under former Gov. John Baldacci. But such a dramatic victory could be more difficult now, as the political landscape in Maine has shifted, with Democrats making up a greater share of registered voters than they did a decade ago.
Candidate recruitment, which LePage said will be a joint effort, is still in the early stages, with only 33 state legislative candidates having filed to run next year so far, mostly incumbents, according to the Maine Ethics Commission. Lawmakers have not yet reached an agreement to redraw Maine House and Senate maps, which will affect the partisan leanings of districts.
Pouliot said the party expected to come out with a more unified message in the coming months.
“It’s safe to say that we’re all going to be working together to make sure that the people of Maine know clearly what Republicans hope to accomplish,” he said.