Portland, Me.—On a cloudy spring morning, Maine’s ex-governor, 73-year-old Paul LePage, journeyed to the heart of his state’s largest, most diverse, and most progressive city to preside over the opening of a new Multicultural Community Center. Wearing a lavender shirt and slacks, LePage wooed liberal Mainers, declaring that he wanted to make Maine “inclusive to all new citizens,” that he loved talking to immigrants about the countries they came from, and that he hoped his state would roll out the welcome mat and tell new arrivals “We love you.”
There was a surreal quality to the speech, given the many anti-immigrant comments LePage had made during his eight years as a far-right Tea Party–affiliated Republican governor, from January 2011 until 2019. This is the man who, in his two terms in office, fired up his base by telling them that the country was at war against immigrants—especially Hispanic immigrants and, more generally, immigrants of color—and that in a war you shoot first and ask questions later. At the height of the panic about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, the governor announced that asylum seekers were bringing the “ziki fly” with them. Though LePage grew up in the historically oppressed French-speaking community of Maine, he failed to acquire any empathy for the underdog as a result. Instead, he became a major supporter of Donald Trump’s campaign promise of a border wall, his subsequent assault on immigrants’ rights, and his proposed travel ban aimed at Muslim immigrants and visitors.
Now, in 2022, LePage is running for governor again. In his effort to return to the office he vacated in 2019, he’s trying to soften his image on issues like immigration to appeal to a broader audience. Watching the charade unfold at the opening, 73-year-old Edgar Allen Beem, a longtime columnist for the Portland Phoenix and myriad other newspapers, was stunned. “It was a cynical appeal from a politician who’s always been anti-immigrant,” Beem says. “He, like a lot of Republicans, is very good at putting a happy face on horrors. He’ll tell you he balanced the budget, set up a rainy-day fund. What he doesn’t tell you is, more kids went hungry and fell into poverty. He dismantled the Department of Health and Human Services; it’s still not been built back up.”
It’s easy to do a recitation of LePage’s greatest hits, and not just on immigration: He declared that drug dealers, who he had at one point averred were Black and brown and coming up from New York to plunge white Mainers into addiction, should be beheaded. He refused to attend a breakfast commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and then told a reporter who asked about it that the NAACP could “kiss my butt.” He challenged Democratic politician Drew Gattine to a duel, called him a “cocksucker,” and said he would shoot him between the eyes after Gattine allegedly called him a racist. He gratuitously vetoed legislation banning conversion therapy for gay Mainers—legislation pushed by Democratic Representative Ryan Fecteau, who would go on to become the youngest state House speaker in the country—even though the bill had won support from Republicans in the senate and similar bills had been signed by his fellow Republican governors in New Hampshire and New Jersey.
“LePage is not collaborative,” Fecteau says. “He’s chaotic. And seemingly every day he’s trying to find the next thing by which to sow division and chaos. He was the first governor in the nation to veto legislation banning conversion therapy. I think Governor LePage either didn’t understand the implications this harmful practice had, or he did understand and agreed that LGBTQ people should be subject to this harmful practice. It was a day I will never forget.”
The ex-governor’s reactionary political résumé doesn’t end there. He largely dismantled the state’s public health system. He refused to implement Medicaid expansion—despite 60 percent of Maine voters having favored it in a 2017 referendum—creating what Robyn Merrill, of Maine Equal Justice Partners, describes as a perverse situation in which the state’s political muscle was used to “roll back help to people.” Like Trump, LePage was infamously hostile to the press. And he gleefully urged Trump, as president, to be more “authoritarian.”
In 2016, after endorsing Trump for president, the controversy-courting LePage boasted that he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump.” It was a bombastic statement, but in spite of their dissimilar origins, there was more than a kernel of truth in it. Unlike Trump, LePage grew up in extreme poverty, as one of 18 children in an abusive, alcoholic household, and ended up homeless during his teenage years in the early 1960s. But he went from rags to riches, making a fortune as a businessman running a company called Marden’s Surplus & Salvage, and relied heavily on his life story, as well as his salty persona, in crafting his appeal when he eventually made the leap into electoral politics.
This time around, however, LePage—who won his 2010 and 2014 races when the field included a credible independent candidate, meaning he needed only a plurality of the vote to win—is going mano a mano against an incumbent Democratic governor, Janet Mills. Eliot Cutler, a former attorney who served as the spoiler candidate in 2010 and 2014, was recently arrested on child pornography charges, and no one else of note has filed paperwork to enter the race. If LePage—already the de facto GOP nominee, with endorsements from the state party and Senator Susan Collins—wants to win in the general election, he needs to appeal to a significant number of moderates and younger voters. There are, potentially, voters who don’t share his xenophobia but are nevertheless ripe for plucking from the Democratic coalition, given their anxiety about the state of the economy. Cue his shameless pivot on how to treat, and talk about, immigrants.
Yet LePage needs to pull off this maneuver without alienating his hard-right base, the Mainers who don’t always vote—or always vote Republican—but who flocked to LePage because he refused to temper his language and didn’t tone down his distaste for outsiders. Hence his continued embrace of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” lies about the 2020 election, as well as his revival of a preposterous scapegoating claim, seemingly drawn from thin air, that people took buses from Massachusetts to Maine to illegally vote in the gay-marriage legalization referendum in 2012.
If LePage can perform this trick successfully in 2022, it’s entirely possible that this will become the road map used by other verbal-bomb-throwing demagogues—even Trump himself—to take back power on the national stage come 2024. But if he loses—if he once more fails to break through the 50 percent threshold—it will show the limits of demagoguery, as well as the power of collective memory in rallying voters to reject a return to governance based on scapegoating and the deliberate stirring of destructive chaos.
When Janet Mills was elected governor in 2018, progressives in Maine heaved a collective sigh of relief. True, the ex–attorney general was about as mainstream a candidate as one could get, and during the election she made a point of tacking to the middle. But while she may not have championed a number of progressive priorities, such as expanding tribal rights in the state, Mills was rational and competent. She was committed to implementing Medicaid expansion and repairing the damage LePage had done to public health institutions; she wanted a cooperative rather than an antagonistic relationship with labor unions; she vowed to protect voting rights; and she aspired to meet the state’s constitutional requirement to fund K-12 schools at a much higher level than had been the case in recent years.
After the Covid pandemic hit, 14 months into her term in office, Mills was at the forefront of efforts by governors from both political parties to counter the chaos and disinformation emanating from the panicked Trump White House. She implemented strict stay-at-home measures early on, introduced mask mandates, and later coordinated an extraordinarily effective vaccination campaign, which resulted in Maine having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. By October of last year, over 80 percent of eligible Mainers were fully vaccinated, making it the fourth state in the country to reach that goal.
Mills has racked up a strong record since January 2019, says Drew Gattine, now the chair of Maine Democrats, as he sits at the heavy wooden dining room table in his atmospheric 19th-century house in the town of Westbrook. In addition to expanding Medicaid and raising state spending on K-12 education, Mills has also increased funding for mental health, disability, and elder services.
State Senate President Troy Jackson details yet more accomplishments. In the past few years, Mills and the Democratic-controlled legislature have introduced universal school meals, established collective bargaining mechanisms for loggers, and used state surpluses to help offset soaring property taxes. Moreover, under Mills, the state has doubled its rainy-day fund. This is a source of particular pride for Jackson—yet he fumes at the fact that so many Republican and independent voters, fed a steady drip of misinformation, continually tell him that the rainy-day fund under LePage was larger. In reality, it now stands at nearly half a billion dollars, more than double what it was in January 2019.
Jackson is horrified at the thought of LePage returning to power, slashing the state income tax in an effective giveaway to wealthy residents, and using the resulting cash shortfall as an excuse to launch another round of savage attacks on the social safety net, education, and the public health infrastructure—all in the name of fiscal probity. “A lot of things that I care about are at risk at that point,” he says tersely.
At the moment, the few existing polls on the race show Mills significantly ahead, though by no means with a blowout margin. As of mid-May, the polling site Race to the WH had her most favorable poll showing her 7 points ahead, with a 56.1 percent chance of winning. Though several polls in recent weeks have shown LePage’s number rising, none of those polls show the ex-governor outpacing the current governor, whose office didn’t return repeated calls and e-mails requesting comment for this article.
For many progressives in the state, however, Mills’s margin isn’t nearly comfortable enough. Mike Tipping, the author of As Maine Went: Governor Paul LePage and the Tea Party Takeover of Maine, is adamant that there’s no room for complacency. An activist with the Maine People’s Alliance, the 38-year-old Tipping is running for the state senate in the purple Eighth District, which ranges from the liberal college town of Orono, in the center of the state, to the conservative community of Lincoln 40 miles north.
In his book, Tipping writes that LePage won high office by preaching an “aggressive, conservative populism,” by convincing low-propensity voters to turn up at the polls, and by telling “a series of whopping lies on the stump.” Twelve years after LePage’s first victory, that playbook remains potent.
Tipping, in blue jeans and sneakers, with a raincoat to guard against the chill and rain of early spring, canvasses in the evenings and on weekends, rapping rhythmically seven times on each door and reciting his patter about how he wants to learn what issues most concern the person whose door he’s just rapped on. He hopes to knock on 4,000 doors before primary day in June and aims to give out thousands of his leaflets, as well as round wooden “Tipping State Senate” refrigerator magnets that he has hand-milled and polished in his basement workshop. His goal is to collect thousands of phone numbers that he can text on primary day with reminders to vote.
People are angry about inflation, Tipping tells me as he canvasses a low-income housing development made up of long, mustard-colored wooden modular bungalows on the edge of Orono. They don’t feel they are earning enough to live stable lives. They’re angry at what the Covid crisis has done to them, both economically and psychologically. Since Democrats control the White House, Congress, and Maine’s legislature and governor’s office, many are blaming the party for their woes. As a result, the party is facing a noticeable enthusiasm gap in getting its voters to the polls in the midterms. Because of this, Tipping argues, even if LePage is far behind going into the last weeks of the race, there is still the risk of catastrophe, as occurred in the US Senate race in 2020. In that contest, polls consistently showed the Democratic challenger ahead of Susan Collins, yet on Election Day, drawing on strong support from rural counties, Collins pulled out a 9 percent win over her opponent.
“I think [LePage] absolutely could get reelected,” Tipping says. “He got 48 percent last time in a three-way race. If the polls show him down a significant amount, I wouldn’t trust them at all. All through 2014 he was polling at 35 to 39 percent—right to the end, when he won with 48 percent. It’s similar with polling issues with Trump. It’s difficult to reach certain populations, and a lot of people are reluctant to say they support LePage or Trump. I think it could easily go either way.”
Whereas Trump is dogged by allegations of kleptocracy and personal corruption, even LePage’s many enemies don’t claim that he used the office to personally enrich himself. In that sense, says Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono, he is a cleaner redux candidate in 2022 than Trump would be in 2024. Given the soaring rate of inflation, the unknowns of how the pandemic will evolve, and the sense felt by many that the good times are disappearing in the rear-view mirror, Brewer believes that LePage could break through the 45 percent ceiling that would, in normal times, hem in a candidate as conservative and polarizing as he is. “If people are still paying over $4 a gallon for gas in November, that won’t be good for Mills,” Brewer says. “And what happens if there’s a new Covid variant in November? None of that would be good for an incumbent officeholder, regardless of who the incumbent is. His ceiling could be in the low 50s if all the dominoes fall right.”
Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate that LePage defeated in 2014, agrees. A longtime paper mill worker and union member, Michaud served 20 years in the state legislature and 12 in the US Congress as a moderate Democrat from the rural Second District of northern Maine. In his race against LePage, the Democrat was consistently up in the polls during the campaign, only to lose by 4 percent come Election Day. Michaud had hit all the issues that ought to have resonated in mill country, he says: He had opposed NAFTA, slammed China for currency manipulation, and railed against the unfair trade deals that were decimating Maine’s paper industry. In short, he did all the things that Trump would do, to great effect, two years later. Yet, battered by the gun lobby and facing LePage’s onslaught against welfare spending, big government, and other bugaboos of the right, he ended up being vulnerable. When push came to shove, a critical mass of erstwhile mill workers and their families abandoned the Democratic Party and helped secure LePage’s second victory.
Nursing a local pale ale at a long wooden table in the Blue Ox Saloon in Millinocket, its walls lined with old books and mounted moose heads, Michaud recalls how he’d tried to phone LePage to concede the election and congratulate his opponent. The Republican victor, ever the pugilist, refused to take his call. Could LePage win again? Michaud answers cautiously: “The party in control of the White House usually takes a beating during the midterms. Biden’s not doing well [in the polls]. Hopefully the Democrats will get enthusiastic and get their voters out to vote and not be complacent.”
What Tipping and Michaud recognize as possible—the return of a right-wing demagogue to power years after his political obituaries had been written—is, for reformers in Maine, the ultimate nightmare scenario, one that they have spent years trying to build firewalls against.
In November 2016, halfway through LePage’s second term, voters passed ranked-choice voting into law via a referendum, making Maine the first state in the union to adopt such a system. Some organizers say that they did so to make it less likely that an extremist like LePage (who would be very few voters’ second choice, in a state that has historically prided itself on its moderate version of Yankee Republicanism) could win office with minority support. But they were thwarted: Months after the referendum’s passage, the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of ranked-choice voting for primaries and federal elections, but not for state elections, citing, in its decision, passages in the state constitution that specify these only have to be decided by a plurality of the voters. A bitter blow for progressives, the decision meant that in races with multiple candidates, someone like LePage would continue to have a viable path to power.
Ranked-choice voting is a way of strengthening local democracy, says Maine’s secretary of state, Shenna Bellows, a longtime supporter of the change. It allows people to vote their hearts instead of having to think strategically about which candidate is the most viable, knowing that their second choice will count almost as much as their first choice does. But, she acknowledges, the wording in the state constitution does make it very difficult to implement ranked-choice voting in general elections for state offices.
Bellows, who’s 47, grew up in extreme poverty. Her parents were environmental and antinuclear activists, and until she was in fifth grade the log cabin that her father built for them had neither electricity nor running water. Today Bellows sees Maine becoming more diverse, and as secretary of state she has supported reforms such as the one recently signed into law by Governor Mills, which allows tribal IDs to be used as proof of identity for the purpose of voter registration. But she worries that when candidates for high office like LePage opportunistically glom on to Trump’s false narrative about a stolen election in 2020, it “undermines the fabric of our democracy”—not only in Maine but in the country at large.
“It feels like we turned the page on LePage. It was a dark chapter,” says Robyn Merrill, of Maine Equal Justice Partners. “The fear, though, is that the page wasn’t actually turned, that he could get back into power and eviscerate programs again, gutting systems in a way that will again take years to recover from. He tries to stoke people’s fear, and that’s part of the divisive rhetoric around blaming groups of people for the fact that folks are struggling and having a hard time. Really, we want to be going in the other direction. Government should be by the people, for the people—and we should continue to do a better job in terms of connecting to people.”
Lepage’s appeal is similar to that of Trump, or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, or, say, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. To his fans, LePage is a tell-it-like-it-is straight shooter, a man who speaks from the heart and sticks it to the liberal elites with their thin skins and their 24-hour-a-day readiness to be triggered by crude comments. He doesn’t let the so-called experts dictate policy or allow outsiders—those “from away,” as Mainers describe them—to determine what local political priorities should be.
In the mill towns and hamlets of the north, a marvelous landscape of frozen lakes and Impressionist-like reflections of sky and clouds in the rivers, LePage’s persona is widely appreciated. In places like Millinocket—a small town along the banks of a tributary of the West Branch Penobscot River, the glory days of which are decades in the past—many of the run-down wooden houses sport Trump flags in their yards and LePage posters in their windows. It’s not uncommon to see “Fuck Mills” bumper stickers on the cars parked outside.
On Central Street, just inside the Millinocket town limits, is American Legion Post 80, complete with a helicopter and tank outside and a basement bar inside. For 49-year-old Joseph Batchelder, who books entertainment at the post, LePage is a breath of fresh air. And he makes Batchelder feel that his part of the state isn’t just some backwater, that it actually matters. “He’s straight-up, right to the point. When he gets stuff done, he gets stuff done. Any improvement to the state, it’s always to the southern part. LePage did the northern part. I’d rather see him than that other woman [Mills]. Everything she’s done has been backwards.” (In reality, according to data provided by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, despite LePage’s rhetoric about helping down-at-the-heels northern mill towns, the economic growth during his two terms in office was overwhelmingly concentrated in the cities of the south; from 2007 to 2014, a period that included most of LePage’s first term, rural Maine saw a period of economic contraction.)
Batchelder, who says he has contracted Covid twice—the first time made him feel like he had a combination of asthma, pneumonia, and pleurisy—isn’t vaccinated. He doesn’t appreciate Mills’s imposition of mask mandates and her efforts to make vaccines compulsory for some parts of the workforce, and he supports LePage in his opposition to mandates. “A lot of us don’t believe in the vaccines,” he says. “A lot of people with vaccines are still getting sick. I believe it’s a big money game. I believe Covid’s real, but they make it more scarier than it is.”
LePage’s life story resonates with people like Batchelder, the people who feel routinely ignored and humiliated. The ex-governor came of age in gritty industrial Lewiston, in central Maine. It is a place dominated by large brick riverfront factories and warehouses, with imposing churches whose copper steeples have turned green with age and low-end department and grocery stores. While many Maine towns exude an old-world charm, Lewiston’s architecture is brutalist and functional. It was on these streets that the young LePage lived for several years, after he fled his violent family home.
To his opponents, LePage came away from his abusive childhood with a sense of brutality rather than empathy, with a soul curdled in some very profound way. Steve Turner, an activist with the Maine People’s Alliance who has his own firsthand experience with living in deep poverty, believes that LePage is “a person who forgot where he came from.” Turner views the former governor with something approaching loathing. “He treated poor people in a very mean way, made it difficult for us to access what social services we have in the United States.” He is particularly scathing about LePage’s veto of Medicaid expansion and about the obstacles he placed in the way of people attempting to get unemployment insurance. “LePage has a keen sense of individual responsibility,” Turner says, “and a defective sense of mutual responsibility, of collective responsibility, of ‘we’ rather than ‘me.’ I wish that someone would explain to LePage that Stage 3 or 4 cancer is not the same as laziness, and PTSD is not the same thing as shiftlessness. But he’ll never get it—because he’s all set.”
Davida Ammerman, a transgender board member of the Maine People’s Alliance and a 52-year member of the carpenters’ union, recalls that in 2018 LePage signed on to a brief asking the US Supreme Court to permit employers to fire queer and transgender employees because of their identity. After LePage left office, the political culture in Augusta became more sympathetic to trans issues. Ammerman worries that these gains will be reversed if LePage wins power again. He was, they argue, “a bully. He was getting people to hate each other when he was governor. He was anathema to the LGBTQ community.” Edgar Allen Beem puts it more succinctly: “He grew up abused by his father, and he abuses everybody.”
To LePage’s friends, though, such as former state representative Sheldon Hanington, his penchant for tough-guy politics and his attacks on social safety nets simply make him feisty—a big bear of a man whose tough exterior eventually gives way to a friendly soul underneath. “LePage had a bombastic way about him,” says Hanington, a self-proclaimed moderate whose strong Maine accent does things with the letter “A” that somehow defy gravity. “But I saw later he was very personable. The persona of him being a bully and bombastic? He was attacked constantly, and when you’re attacked for being what you know you’re not, you get defensive.”
At the 3 Cousins Firearms store, on the corner of Lincoln and Cedar streets in Lewiston, next to a large church and a few blocks from the majestic Androscoggin River, much of the staff and their clientele are solidly in LePage’s camp. The little shop, one wall lined with powerful rifles and another painted with a giant American flag, is co-owned by Trevor Brooks. For Trevor’s father, 71-year-old Dan Brooks, LePage’s support for the Second Amendment is critical. “Without the Second Amendment, I’m afraid of what the country would look like,” he says. Wiry thin, in jeans, a plaid shirt, and a camo cap, with a trimmed gray goatee, Brooks worries that Mills doesn’t “support the Second Amendment like I would like. She doesn’t seem to be with Second Amendment people. LePage, I do like him.” He particularly likes the permitless carry law passed in 2015. “I would definitely vote for him again.” Brooks also likes the fact that LePage slashed government, worrying that there’s a tendency to “law ourselves to death” in America. Even though he and his son are both fully vaccinated and, during the early months of the pandemic, customers were asked to mask up before entering the store, Dan says he is wary of mask and vaccine mandates and is concerned that Mills’s public health policies are eroding the state’s storied live-and-let-live principles.
Brooks’s friend Steve, a machinist and gun enthusiast who is hanging out at the store in a 3 Cousins Firearms sweatshirt, agrees. Regarding masks, his philosophy is “You want to wear it, wear it; you don’t want to wear it, don’t wear it. It’s a free country. To push your issues on somebody else, your way or the highway—last I checked, it isn’t preschool. This is a free country that could be exterminated just by people doing stupid shit.”
In his two terms as governor, LePage successfully tapped into the resentment toward big, encroaching government. He positioned himself as the defender of the little man and railed against what he saw as government overreach. As a candidate in 2022, he has opposed mask mandates, denounced Mills’s vaccine requirement for health care workers, and suggested that children needn’t be protected from a virus that, for most of them, will not have lethal consequences.
Of course, as with Trump, there is more than a pinch of hypocrisy to the “I speak for the people” shtick. When LePage, whose campaign ignored repeated phone and e-mail requests to make the candidate available for an interview for this article, termed out in January 2019, he left Maine for the warmer climes and lower taxes of Florida, the latter of which were better suited for his wealthy businessman needs. When LePage argued against Medicaid expansion, he was making it harder for many of his most fervent supporters—who are disproportionately white and working-class and, frequently, work in gig-economy or non-union jobs—to gain access to medical care; all the while, as a public employee, he had state-of-the-art insurance. When he attacked the minimum wage in the name of business efficiency and ordered the jackhammering of a mural celebrating Maine workers that adorned a wall in the state’s Department of Labor, he wasn’t just giving the middle finger to Maine’s artists, who, predictably, howled in outrage at the cultural vandalism; at the same time, he was deliberately sticking it to the interests and the very dignity of the ordinary working-class men and women that he claimed to be a spokesman for. In January, even as he was attacking vaccine mandates for health care workers, he floated the idea of requiring all welfare recipients in Maine to provide proof of vaccination in order to receive benefits.
On the polished wooden walls of 76-year-old Eric Rojo’s high-ceilinged living room in a farmhouse at the end of a dirt track outside Lincoln, which he bought when he moved back to Maine after living around the world since 1967, there hangs a large collection of swords. One is a World War II–era ceremonial sword from Japan; another is a weapon with an eagle motif from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that he picked up at an antique store in Munich when he was serving in the Army there after he had been rotated out of Vietnam.
Rojo is an energy security specialist who retired from the US Army, where he served in the Department of Energy, a few years back and then moved to Mexico (he had married a Mexican professor, and the two wanted to live there for a few years). In Mexico, he was an active member of the country’s chapter of Republicans Overseas. His body lean, his eyes full of intellectual intensity, Rojo prides himself on his no-nonsense ability to get the job done—whatever the job may be. And he doesn’t hold back when he talks about this belief that politicians are taking the place he lives in the wrong direction.
When Rojo moved back to Maine recently and started renovating his farm, the local chapter of the Republican Party asked if he’d be willing to run for office. Despite his age—and despite his alienation from the wing of the party that had bought into Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election—he agreed to throw his hat into the ring as a primary candidate for District Eight, the district that Mike Tipping also hopes to represent come November.
“The economy is a disaster here,” Rojo says. And the skyrocketing cost of fuel “has a lot of people pretty much locked up in their homes, making choices between buying food and gasoline.” He wants to promote energy independence, in particular an increased use of nuclear power; to find ways for parents to have more input on what their children learn in the classroom; to invest more in technical schools to train the state’s workforce; and—a rarity among today’s Republicans—to strengthen environmental laws against pollution and the despoilment of public lands.
On the stump, the candidate—who is running in the primary against a woman who has embraced the more hard-right rhetoric that has shaped so much of modern GOP discourse—found that these issues were resonating. “We are picking up a lot of Democratic support both here and in the south [of the district], because they’re unhappy with the economic situation and the lack of opportunity.”
Rojo’s campaign manager—none other than LePage’s friend Sheldon Hanington—believes not only that Rojo has a good chance of winning in November but that Maine is about to swing right after recent election cycles in which the Democrats have come to dominate the state government in Augusta. “This election cycle is going to turn in favor of turning the state red,” Hanington says, adding that LePage could pick up as much as 60 percent of the popular vote. “People are having it hard,” he continues. “It’s going to be hard for Mills to explain the state of the economy versus LePage saying, ‘We’re going to fix the economy, because we’ve done it before.’ When you [spend] $70 for a tank of gas, it hurts, just as much for a Republican as for a Democrat. Heating oil costs $500.”
By most metrics, despite the high inflation and soaring energy costs, Governor Mills has a sterling set of accomplishments to fall back on during her reelection campaign in the coming months; by contrast, LePage’s record is mediocre at best. When he was governor, in the period after the Great Recession, there was significant job growth—but as Garrett Martin, president of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, explains, compared with other states, the growth was unexceptional; in fact, Martin’s team has calculated, Maine ranked 43rd out of the 50 states for job growth during this time. By contrast, under Mills, the recovery from the job swoon in the early months of the pandemic boosted Maine’s rank to 17th. Since Mills took office, poverty is down, health insurance coverage is up, and the rainy-day fund has never been fuller. With employment ticking up and tax revenues soaring, Maine is in a position to give a tax rebate of $850 to most residents this year.
In 2017 the Maine Center for Economic Policy produced a paper, “Lost Federal Funds: Lost Opportunities for Maine,” that estimated that LePage, in turning his back on Medicaid expansion, feeding hungry families, treating people with substance abuse issues, improving services for mentally ill teenagers, and other programs, had forfeited $1.9 billion in funds that Maine was eligible for. During LePage’s time in office, the center’s economists found, Maine was the only state in the country that did not see an increase in the number of residents with medical coverage in the four years after passage of the Affordable Care Act. It was also the only state with no statistically significant jump in the percentage of children with some form of health insurance. Since Mills took office, Maine has accessed federal funds to cover more of the uninsured and has ramped up a host of public services that, under LePage, had withered on the vine.
Yet, like President Biden, Mills faces an electorate that seems to have soured on Democratic policies and rhetoric and that notices the bad economic indicators, especially the sticker shock of high inflation, while ignoring improvements in the broader economy and the social safety net. Despite the fact that roughly 70,000 low-income Mainers have gained health coverage under Mills and unemployment is down to 3.3 percent (lower than the national average), the Democratic governor’s support may well be softer than that of LePage, who is not just tolerated by his fans but, like Trump, adored for his willingness to ruffle feathers and step on toes.
For Troy Jackson, this signals danger. The senate president, a working-class politician who prides himself on having his finger on his state’s blue-collar pulse, believes the outcome of the election is a toss-up, and he is deeply concerned that the GOP is well-positioned to tap into public anger, especially around inflation, over the coming months. “There’s people who feel, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge, they’re always getting screwed—and sometimes I wonder if they’re right,” he says, laughing nervously.
For the ex–Tea Party governor, this makes for fertile political terrain. “Paul LePage,” says Steve, at 3 Cousins Firearms, “is a man’s man. He’s a personable person. He doesn’t think he’s better than you.”
Does LePage’s penchant for inflammatory language bother Joseph Batchelder, in Millinocket? Not in the slightest. “Tell me what sailor don’t swear!” he says with a hearty, barrel-chested explosion of mirth. “Everybody has a foul mouth. It’s the way it is—it’s just words. A lot of people are getting too sensitive, I guess.”
In fact, Batchelder continues, LePage’s language helps to engage his audience. “It wakes people up: ‘Oh my gosh! He said that?!’ They’re actually listening.”
State Senator Chloe Maxmin, a longtime activist on climate justice, says LePage’s campaign is a predictable if dispiriting follow-on both to his earlier spells in the governor’s mansion and to the Trump era. “The antagonism and division and vitriol is still really alive and is just being transferred to LePage,” she says. “People want hyper-independence from the government. Mask mandates and closures fed into this, and LePage took advantage of it.” If he were to win in November, she says, “it would be like Trump getting reelected, completely decimating all government services…for people who need them the most.”
As the spring melts the long winter’s snow and gradually breaks up the lake ice, LePage is traversing the state with his tax-cutting, anti-mandate, anti-welfare, anti-regulatory agenda. He is seeking to capitalize on a broad, inchoate sense of anomie, to pick up support in places that previously shunned him. To do so, he’s been willing to moderate his image on immigration and other key issues, even as he doubles down on his tax policies, his anti-regulatory stances, and his embrace of election conspiracy theories. “I can honestly say he has softened,” Hanington assures me. Then he pauses and backtracks slightly. “But he is not weak. It’s the same beat of the drum, but he has learned to tone it down.”