If all you’ve seen of Paul LePage are the TV clips – “Kiss my butt,” “The new Gestapo,” “Without the benefit of Vaseline” – you haven’t really seen Paul LePage.
Oh, he said all of those things, and more. But the clips don’t show him connecting with voters. That was the Paul LePage who was on stage in Portland at the May 8 Community Chamber Eggs and Issues breakfast.
He took the microphone without a text and spent 45 minutes beating up on his favorite punching bags – welfare fraudsters, drug dealers and this newspaper – in front of a sea of bobbing heads, which laughed only when he made a joke.
This LePage was not the caricature that the national media like to turn to when they want a highlight reel of tea party follies. (Usually after saying something like, “What is going on in Maine, anyway?”). This was a shrewd politician at the top of his game. And it’s this LePage – not the butt of late-night comics’ jokes – who Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler will be up against in November.
Try to catch the governor’s act sometime, especially if you think this election will be a simple matter of the 61 percent who voted for someone other than LePage last time making up their minds.
“We can make headway with Democrats and we can make headway with Republicans, but we cannot make headway with liberals,” the governor explained. “They do not want to move forward with us. We can’t fix the drugs, we can’t fix the nursing homes and we can’t fix the fraud until you send people to Augusta that are interested and willing to get to work. … What you need to do is hold (your representative’s) feet to the fire and do not let them lie to you.”
The importance of truth was a constant theme of the speech, even though it was peppered, as usual, with misstated facts and wild conjecture.
“Do you know in the state of Maine we lose more people from overdose of heroin than we do to car accidents?” he asked.
A terrifying statistic, but it’s not true – not even close.
There were 28 Maine heroin overdose deaths in 2012 and 164 highway deaths. The numbers were much closer when you include all drug overdose deaths (162), which are overwhelmingly caused by prescription painkillers … but, wait a minute – isn’t this the governor who vetoed a bill that would have made an overdose antidote more available? Vetoed it twice? And now he’s worried about overdoses?
You can fact-check his speeches all day long and not begin to shake LePage’s appeal, because he is making an emotional connection with people – telling them that the lousy deal they are getting makes him mad. The facts are beside the point. That’s why no matter how often he’s proven wrong, a lot of people still trust him.
Can you imagine LePage issuing a statement as confusing as the one Eliot Cutler sent columnist Bill Nemitz last week, in which Cutler wrote that he would tell his supporters that they had “no obligation to vote for me” if Cutler were to wake up on Election Day feeling that he had no chance of winning? And don’t forget that Cutler prefaced that bombshell with the opinion that “I don’t believe either Mike Michaud or Paul LePage has the skills, temperament or independence to lead Maine and rebuild our economy.”
Then who would he give his supporters permission to vote for? The Marden’s lady?
And while we know a lot about Michaud after his long career in public service, there are things that we really don’t know, like what makes him mad. If anything does, it hasn’t happened much in public.
Before this race is over, Michaud is going to have to address the anger of voters who feel that the schools, the government and the economy have let them down.
It may not be in his character to pound the podium, but promising to bring Democrats and Republicans together to return Maine to civility probably won’t be enough.
LePage has some serious roadblocks in the way of his re-election that should not be underestimated.
According to the polls, most people don’t approve of the job he is doing, and more people say they don’t like him than do. In a democracy, that’s usually bad news.
But he’s not running against perfect candidates, either, and when Election Day rolls around, some of those people who say they can’t stand LePage’s style are going to end up voting for him anyway, in part because they know what he stands for.
That gives LePage a big head start in this race. It would be a mistake to underestimate him.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: