AUGUSTA — In trying to protect his vision of the state budget this year, Maine Gov. Paul LePage may have cost his fellow Republicans in elections next year.
LePage targeted a Democratic opponent Thursday with a sexually vulgar phrase to express his frustration over the budget, immediately drawing criticism from Democrats and potential future political opponents. The comment drew widespread attention as the latest example of LePage’s blunt and unconventional style, a quality of his that helped attract a tea party base that propelled him to office.
But the comment could cause moderate members of his own party to distance themselves from LePage ahead of next year’s elections, experts say. LePage has become a central figure for the far right and Republicans running for re-election next year will need to think about how their relationship with him will be seen among voters, said Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine.
“In some districts, that would be a positive because they are strongly Republican districts, but if you are in a more moderate district, not so much,” she said.
Maine voters are already taking notice.
Susan Simons, 65, said in downtown Hallowell on Friday that she had just left lunch with a friend where they discussed “how embarrassed” they are that LePage is the “spokesman for our state.”
The real impact may be felt among Republicans lawmakers that could be up for re-election on the same ticket with the governor in 2014, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.
“It makes it very difficult for them,” he said. “It gives the Democrats one more thing to use against LePage and, by extension, the Republican party in 2014,” he said.
LePage has drawn criticism for ungainly comments before. Shortly after taking office, he told the Portland chapter of NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and later said that the state’s middle managers are “as corrupt as can be.”
LePage’s remark Thursday was targeted at state Sen. Troy Jackson, the assistant Democratic leader. LePage called on lawmakers to sign off on a 60-day reprieve to negotiate a new budget and said he’d veto the budget that lawmakers passed. Jackson criticized LePage’s announcements as political stunts and said lawmakers don’t need to negotiate with LePage because they have enough votes to override his veto next week.
Jackson “claims to be for the people,” LePage told reporters, “but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”
LePage offered an apology Friday, saying, “If I offended anyone with my comment, my sincere apology. It was not intended to offend anybody. But I will say this: It was intended to wake the people of Maine up … that taxation right now is not appropriate.”
While the long-term political ramifications for other Republicans remain to be seen, the effect for LePage may be that he galvanized his supporters but made his job harder, political analysts say.
“For a sizable chunk of the electorate, his blunt talk is not a problem and is probably an asset,” said Brian Duff, political science professor at the University of New England. “He speaks from his heart and he hates the idea of extending government and hates the idea of social programs that might keep people dependent on the government, whether it’s health care or unemployment or food stamps. He speaks about it with a visceral distaste.”
Josh Martin, 27, a LePage supporter from Biddeford, said people who liked LePage when he came into office will still like him after his remarks last week, and people who didn’t like him will still dislike him.
“People are set in stone with their political agendas,” Martin said in Portland on Friday.
But that same style that attracts supporters could affect LePage’s leadership for the rest of his term, Duff said. His loud criticism of the state budget and his plans to veto it grate on both Democrats and GOP lawmakers, who worked together to craft a bipartisan, compromise budget that was acceptable to both sides of the aisle, he said.
It could cause some Republicans to vote against the governor and join Democrats in overriding his veto of the budget next week in an effort to distance themselves from him politically, Brewer said.
“Republicans,” Duff added, “are frustrated. The big question would be is it going to frustrate somebody enough that somebody will run against him in the (2014 Republican gubernatorial) primary.”
LePage himself may take away that option. On Friday, he said he’s mulling a bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat held by Democrat Mike Michaud, who recently took the first steps toward launching his own gubernatorial campaign in Maine next year.
LePage said he’s also considering getting out of politics altogether, but he has already starting raising money for his re-election campaign.