The last week of Maine’s contentious gubernatorial race appeared on the surface to see candidates playing it safe regarding policy. But a few flashpoints showed the diverging strategies incumbent Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage are taking to close out the race.
Despite their longtime rivalry, the race for the Blaine House has for the most part been relatively mundane. But as the final polls rolled in — a survey commissioned by FairVote and released to the Bangor Daily News on Friday found Mills to have a six percentage point lead over LePage — the rhetoric from both major candidates has gotten stronger and their meetings more confrontational.
Mills broke out of her tendency to stick to past successes and avoid future promises by issuing a fiery call to arms at a Portland pro-abortion rights rally. LePage called for the media to aid him in pressuring the governor for more movement on heating assistance and tried to position himself as being more open to reproductive rights while distancing himself from former President Donald Trump.
Those public showings have been bolstered with candidates appearing all over the state in a last effort to reach voters. Whereas Democrats are focused on turning out and energizing voters, Republicans are making a final push to reach undecideds who may be just frustrated enough with the cost of living and the current administration to make a change.
It may be hard to imagine any voter not having decided between LePage and Mills, both of whom have had notable terms in recent years marked by tough economic circumstances. Also running is independent Sam Hunkler, who clocked in with 4 percent of voter support in the FairVote poll. But Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, is betting on there being just enough undecideds to make a difference.
“These are people who in prior years might have been locked in (on their vote) for a month, but the unique economic pain is making them rethink what they’re going to do and how they’ll plan for their children’s future,” he said.
From the beginning, Republicans have hammered Mills, a Democrat, on the economy, with the price of transportation and home heating fuel becoming an increasing focal point as the weather has begun to cool. It was the central pitch LePage made to reporters at a windy press conference Wednesday at Dysarts in Hermon alongside 2nd Congressional District candidate Bruce Poliquin, to the point where he brushed aside most other policy questions.
“People need to make up their minds by Tuesday, right?” he said in reference to the election. “Right now I’m trying to get your assistance — the public, the people in journalism — to help us go to the governor and say, ‘Pull out all the stops.’ ”
LePage called for more heating oil reserves to be released and for Mills to allow kerosene with higher sulfur content to be imported from Canada. He also revisited his promise to repeal a bill divesting Maine’s public pension system from fossil fuels by 2026.
LePage’s press conference was preceded by a Republican event in liberal Portland, with party leaders calling attention to an edited Mills comment over the prior weekend calling inflation a “distraction.” Lance Dutson, a conversative strategist with Red Hill Strategies, said it makes sense for Republicans to make their last pushes in areas where they may not be their strongest, saying it is more important to add new voters during the end game.
It is especially critical for LePage, who was beset by several controversies while in office from 2011-18. Democrats have made his tenure a cornerstone of their 2022 campaign, even as LePage has sought to present a more moderate tone.
Dutson said the campaign has essentially been pitched as a functional executive in office during a tough economic time — Mills — versus a former governor with an “outsider” image whose time in office was rocky and at times less effective. But whether that will matter to Mainers is hard to say.
“Things working better in Augusta aren’t as emotionally charged as people thinking about how they’re going to heat their homes,” he said.
LePage’s efforts to do so were evident Thursday in the final debate between the two main contenders. The former governor pressed Mills on her economic policies and sought to characterize her as not doing enough to try and combat high costs of living.
At the same time, he made his strongest statement about abortion, saying the decision is between a woman and her doctor despite his personal dislike for it. He has promised not to change state law protecting abortion rights in Maine, something abortion rights advocates and conservative supporters have both received with skepticism.
He tried to distance himself from his prior support for a Trump executive order banning travelers from certain Muslim countries in 2017 while pushing for asylum seekers to be allowed to work faster. That is also quite a departure from his history of accusing the group of spreading disease as he did in 2015. Now he is trying to appear more welcoming.
Contrast that with Mills, who departed from her usually calm and controlled mannerisms during the debate to drive home her successes in office despite economic upheaval. It came with some of her strongest criticisms of LePage.
“I’m someone who listens, who tells the truth, who fights problems, not people,” she said.
It was in line with how Democrats messaged across the state this week. Multiple polls have found the economy ranks as the chief concern for voters. Misha Linnehan, a spokesperson for the Maine Democratic Party, said it is critical to drive home contrasts between the two candidates’ records to show why Mills is better equipped to tackle that issue.
It has been a driving message during a record-breaking amount of campaign spending in a Maine governor’s race, most from outside groups. About $23 million has been spent since late October, according to the Portland Press Herald, with two-thirds as outside spending. Candidates are still soliciting donations that could be used for last-minute digital advertising.
There have been few last-minute big endorsements, with the most notable being Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ support for LePage in a Thursday tweet. While Mills has picked up reliable big-name endorsements, such as Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King, Maine has not been a campaign stop for Democratic President Joe Biden this year. The president, whose poll numbers have remained underwater, has focused more on California, Illinois and New Mexico in his final midterm push.
Still, Mills’ most animated performance came during a Tuesday rally with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England that focused on abortion rights. The base-revving event alongside local candidates and the 1st Congressional District’s Rep. Chellie Pingree came just as the Maine Democrats launched a statewide get-out-the-vote campaign, with Mills headlining events in York County and an upcoming event in Lewiston.
“I’ve never backed down from a fight either, and where the stakes (are) so high, you can be damn sure I’m not about to now,” she said.
That focus on motivating voters could pay off for Democrats, said liberal campaign strategist David Farmer, noting the party had a significant lead in absentee voting earlier this week. With much of the messaging already set and fewer opportunities to do so, it is more important at this point to ensure people get out than try to change minds, he said.
“Those that haven’t decided in this race are a small portion of the electorate,” he said. “At this point it’s a contest between whose rhetoric has motivated their base more.”
Caitlin Andrews covers state government and elections for The Maine Monitor. Reach her by email with other story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org.