Paul LePage has just endured the most difficult few weeks of his 2½-year administration. His now-famous “Vaseline” comment ricocheted across the country, and none of the publicity was flattering.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow devoted 8½ minutes to a summary of Paul LePage’s greatest hits that immediately went viral. “This is what tea party government looks like,” said Maddow, a self-described liberal.
More troubling, for LePage and for Maine, were comments like “crass” and “vulgar” and “What’s happened in Maine?” from columnists and writers in major news outlets across the country. Seasoned Washington reporter Andrea Mitchell went as far as to lament, on air, that she hoped Maine voters wouldn’t ship LePage to Washington, because they don’t want him there.
Maine voters also reached a tipping point last week, as this fall’s polls will illustrate. In every corner of the state, the conversation about LePage has taken a turn toward the worst. What had been seen as eccentricity and “bluntness” is now viewed as embarrassing instability.
The damage has even reached into LePage’s core tea party support, whose spirited defense of all things LePage has, for now at least, been reduced to small pockets of angry denial, while more moderate Republicans have begun to publicly disassociate from the governor.
These last few weeks have turned LePage’s re-election campaign upside down, with the first casualty being the so-called inevitability of his re-election, which has evaporated.
Having worked in politics for some years a while ago, I feel sympathy for his advisers. When you’re too close to a campaign, you sometimes can’t see or don’t want to acknowledge a big change in the wind direction. But unless they’re living in a vacuum-sealed bubble, they know that the string of voter patience with LePage’s tantrums has run out and that he now hangs by a remaining thread that will be broken by the least reverberation.
They also know that the odds are mathematically too small to measure that candidate Le-Page will survive a grueling 15-month campaign against two or more very skilled campaigners without making a major gaffe.
When LePage ran the first time, he was forgiven a series of embarrassing outbursts and allowed to hide out in the final weeks. This time, he’ll have neither of those benefits.
LePage said last week he might not run, then said Tuesday, at a fundraiser for his campaign, that he will. (What else could you possibly say, in that situation? “Sorry folks, just kidding”?)
But he still has a fundamental question to confront over the summer: Does he have the energy, patience and skills to win another election, and to govern for another four years? Here are the remaining options for the governor and Republicans:
• LePage recovers and wins. This is hardly possible unless LePage transforms himself into a much more skilled and effective campaigner. That would require controlling his anger, developing a real plan for the economy that goes beyond cutting government and putting lobbyists in charge of agencies, and learning from his mistakes. He’s shown no signs of being able to do even one of those.
• LePage runs and loses in 2014. This is now the most likely scenario. If he loses in a fireball, the party as a whole will suffer with him across the state and at every level.
• LePage loses in a Republican primary. An unlikely challenge from a Republican like Peter Mills or Roger Katz could save the party from further destruction, but would undoubtedly be divisive in the short term and costly in the fall of 2014.
• LePage runs for Congress. Another uphill climb for LePage after his suggestion that people who work in the woods aren’t intelligent enough to serve in government. That hurt, but Troy Jackson’s response hurt more. “He’s upper management, I’m working class,” Jackson said, which went right to the heart of LePage’s narrative as the champion of the little guy.
• LePage announces that he will not seek re-election. This is undoubtedly the best outcome for everyone, but anxious Republicans shouldn’t get their hopes up. It would give them time to mount a primary campaign and to rally behind someone who might appeal to the middle of the spectrum.
Of those options, the most likely is that LePage will give this little real thought, he’ll go with the flow of his campaign, and get drubbed in the 2014 elections.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy, and a partner in the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be contacted at: