AUGUSTA — Action, not words.
So goes the mantra of Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who officially launched his re-election campaign Tuesday in front of hundreds of supporters at the Buker Community Center.
The kickoff featured the governor’s trademark defiance and his promise to continue a reform agenda that has drawn support from his base of tea party activists and criticism from opponents who are intent on unseating him in 2014.
When he ran in 2010, LePage was the dark horse, the brash-talking mayor of Waterville who conquered a field of Republican primary candidates with bigger names and bigger wallets. He has said that people called him Secretariat after that primary, referring to the legendary racehorse. Indeed, LePage was elected with the wind of tea party activists and a Republican electoral wave behind him.
The political landscape may be changing, in Maine and nationally. LePage has not.
His finish in 2014 is uncertain, but his bravado remains. He is the same as he was three years ago, bucking what he described in a recent report as Augusta’s “nicey-nicey club.” He has done most of what he said he would do, aggressively implementing a policy agenda that aligns with the hard-line conservatism of the tea party.
He also has said things — many things — that people have found objectionable or false.
“I came from business,” LePage said Tuesday. “I’m not a smooth-talking politician.”
Later, he said, “I’m not a man of fancy words. I’m a man of action.”
SUCCESSES AGAINST â€˜STATUS QUO’
LePage’s mixture of policy and impolitic talk may provide a path to victory for one of his opponents, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud or independent Eliot Cutler. But as the Lewiston native launched his re-election bid Tuesday, his campaign rolled out a rhetorical platform designed to play up his strengths — policy accomplishments and his personal story — with an “actions speak louder than words” mantra that simultaneously acknowledged and downplayed the governor’s penchant for verbal missteps.
LePage has made similar statements over the past several months, saying “words are like thunder” but don’t accomplish anything. He did so Tuesday in a 15-minute speech that underscored the campaign’s substance-over-style theme.
He also billed himself as a “turnaround” specialist, a nod to a policy agenda that he says has corrected decades of fiscal mismanagement in Augusta.
LePage has clashed with Democrats and members of his own party. He acknowledged as much Tuesday, as he highlighted his achievements from an aggressive policy agenda that has included welfare reform, streamlining regulations and cutting taxes.
The governor touted his crackdown on welfare fraud and a five-year limit on welfare cash benefits that has dramatically reduced caseloads.
He also signed a bill that made Maine the 41st state to allow charter schools. And he later devised a way to repay Maine’s 39 hospitals $183.5 million in state-owed Medicaid reimbursement payments — a plan that the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved this summer.
He said the push to change state government has been difficult.
“Yes, I have made some tough decisions, yes I have changed the status quo,” he said. “But we need to move forward. I won’t give up.”
He added, “I might bend, but I don’t break.”
RECORD CRITICIZED AND PRAISED
Michaud and Cutler have begun to highlight their disagreement with many of LePage’s policies. On Tuesday, the liberal Maine People’s Alliance also took aim at the governor’s self-portrayal as a “turnaround” specialist.
“Governor LePage is right; he is an expert at turning around,” said the group’s director, Jesse Graham. “He claimed to care about the state’s bottom line, then turned around and blew a $400 million hole in the budget with new tax breaks for the wealthy. He claimed to stand up for the little guy, then turned around and let lobbyists and corporate interests run his administration. He claimed to want to create jobs, then turned around and made cuts that have caused more people to become homeless than to find work.”
The Democratic Governors Association, which is expected be active in Maine in 2014, took a similar approach. In a release titled “a national embarrassment declares futile re-election bid,” Associate Director Colm O’Comartun said LePage “embarrassed the people of Maine with his outlandish antics and offensive remarks” while pursuing an agenda that put corporate interests over those of working Mainers.
In a written statement, Cutler said he isn’t buying the governor’s “action” rhetoric. He said he couldn’t think of a governor “whose words have done more damage to Maine’s reputation or the pride we all have in this state.”
LePage’s opponents will try to flip his accomplishments, but they can’t claim that he hasn’t had many.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, head of the Republican Governors Association, emphasized LePage’s policy achievements in a media statement. He said LePage has been a “loyal steward to the taxpayers, an ally to those seeking jobs, and a strong advocate for the reform of the state’s education system.”
Mainers can expect to see heavy involvement by national groups like the two governors associations in 2014. The Republican group spent more than $1 million helping LePage in 2010 and has already rolled out a campaign dubbed the “American Comeback,” a series of videos highlighting Republican governors’ reform efforts.
With Michaud in the race, the Democratic Governors Association is expected to be active early in Maine.
The governor has also alienated some in his own Republican party where in Maine, and nationally, there appears to be unity on policy — smaller government, less regulations, lower taxes — but division on method — policy concessions from Democrats or shutdown the government.
National polls show that the tea party tactics in Congress over the shutdown have hurt the Republican party, lowering its standing with the public to historic lows. While it’s unclear how long the shutdown effect will linger, national pundits believe that a key gubernatorial contest in Virginia could provide some clues. On Tuesday tea party Republican candidate Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost to Democrat Terry McAulliffe in a race that prognosticators had called for Republicans in earlier this year. Meanwhile, moderate Republican Gov. Christ Christie romped in blue-state New Jersey, a victory that may have had as much to do with governor’s outsized personality and charisma as popular support for his policies.
A stronger tea party could buoy LePage, who is closely aligned with the movement’s ideology and grassroots activists, who turned out in force Tuesday night. However, the alignment may not bode well for his chances with independent voters.
LePage openly courted the tea party vote in 2010. He didn’t mention it once Tuesday night. His advisor, Brent Littlefield, objected to references to the tea party in this story via email.
â€˜DECENT’ CHANCE FOR A SECOND TERM
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said the governor faces obstacles in his run for re-election but he’s hardly a “dead man walking,” as one Politico reporter wrote in August.
Brewer said LePage has a “decent chance” at a second term, in part because the three-way race with LePage, Cutler and Michaud creates the potential for the kind of vote-splitting that helped LePage to a narrow victory over Cutler in 2010.
Brewer said LePage also has a chance to contrast his policy achievements in his first term with those pursued by Democrats during three decades in power in the State House. Doing so may also help soften LePage’s hard edges, including what his supporters acknowledge is his biggest liability: his mouth.
Brewer said LePage could be in trouble if Cutler or Michaud begins to gain the majority of the “anti-LePage vote.”
Some pundits believe that Michaud has taken the right path to do that. The six-term congressman has a unified coalition of Democrats and independents. On Monday, the 58-year-old former mill worker announced that he is gay, a personal revelation that may help him in his battle against Cutler for independent and Democratic voters.
LePage’s campaign has not commented on Michaud’s decision to announce his sexuality. Cutler has said it has no bearing on the 2014 race.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @stevemistler