One does not typically consider leading the state’s largest, complicated and historically troubled bureaucracy as a springboard for the Blaine House. It’s more like a trap door. A safer spot is the Department of Economic and Community Development, where the agency head can show up for ribbon cuttings and claim, accurately or not, that he or she brought jobs to Maine.

Nonetheless, there is chatter among some Republicans that Mary Mayhew, the current commissioner of the DHHS, is being groomed for a future gubernatorial run. It would be easy to dismiss such speculation given that Mayhew’s DHHS has followed the established historical trend of the agency, that is, controversy upon controversy. During the Baldacci and King administrations, problems with computers and administering public welfare programs led to the rolling of heads.

Under Gov. Paul LePage, the troubles at DHHS have slid off Mayhew, who always looks and acts like she’s in complete control and has a deft touch with the media. It has led to high praise among Republicans, including her current boss. During the uproar over document shredding at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which is a part of DHHS, the governor lauded Mayhew as “a superstar.”

The governor is not alone in his assessment.

According to sources within the Maine Republican Party, Mayhew is very much considered a potential gubernatorial candidate for 2018. From one person’s perspective, Mayhew is poised to have the appeal of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who enjoys support from Democrats, Republicans and unenrolled voters.

Mayhew did not respond to requests for comment.

That she could somehow chart a course like Collins might seem like a stretch given that Mayhew is so closely linked to LePage, who isn’t exactly in danger of being dubbed a moderate.

However, Mayhew is a former Democrat. She was a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander, a Democrat from Arkansas. In 1990, she became the 25-year-old campaign manager for Patrick McGowan, a Democrat who made an unsuccessful bid for Congress (McGowan lost to Olympia Snowe, the Republican incumbent, by a single percentage point.).

Her career trajectory has been assisted by other encounters, one of which may well help boost a gubernatorial candidacy, should she choose to pursue it.

Mayhew is often referred to as a former lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association, a post that some argued helped to land her in the DHHS job. That may be true, but it was her pre-MHA clients, Altria (better known as Philip Morris USA) and Maine Beverage & Wine Wholesalers that helped her get acquainted with Roy Lenardson, a longtime conservative operative who runs the consulting firm Strategic Advocacy.

Lenardson used to be the legislative policy analyst for the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, the panel that hears legislation related to liquor contracts and other matters of interest to Mayhew’s former clients. Mayhew and Lenardson have maintained a strong working relationship since their career paths left the VLA committee room.

Lenardson told the Portland Press Herald earlier this year that he and Mayhew have remained friends. Today, Sam and Nick Adolphsen, two former political operatives trained by Lenardson, hold two key positions within Mayhew’s DHHS, as do other former members of Strategic Advocacy.

Lenardson and his team of operatives have been involved with other aspirants to public office, including Rick Bennett, the current chairman of the Maine Republican Party. Lenardson’s firm and affiliate companies did a lot of the consulting during Bennett’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012, as did Brent Littlefield, the political adviser to LePage.

Reached Wednesday via email, Lenardson said that it was only “the rumor phase of the Mayhew for Governor effort.” However, he too brought up the Collins comparison (sort of).

“Well, the last person – in the Republican Party – I can recall who understood the importance of charting a course well in advance was Susan Collins, so if Mary is taking a page from the Senator’s playbook then I’d be the first to congratulate her,” he wrote. “She would definitely be on the short list of folks I would support. And history is on her side – Maine people have been electing Republican women to statewide office since the 1950s, unlike the Democrats – who have yet to do so.”

Lenardson said that he believed Mayhew was “more interested right now in seeing Governor Lepage get re-elected so she can finish the job and fix the decades-long neglect of the state’s welfare programs.”

Supporting LePage can also mean supporting Mayhew, which may be why the two appeared together Wednesday at a public appearance that was decidedly unrelated to the affairs of the DHHS: Fluid Farms Aquaponics in North Yarmouth.

– Steve Mistler

WATCH ADS LIKE A HAWK

It’s not quite time to endure the onslaught of televised political ads, but it’s coming, so be prepared. For some that means ensuring that the mute button works, but for political junkies it means finding out who paid for the ads.

For the junkies, the Sunlight Foundation has a new app that may help. It’s called Ad Hawk and you can install it on your iPhone or Android device.

It works a little bit like Shazam, an app that helps music fans identify the artist, song and album title when they hear a new song on the radio. Ad Hawk basically uses the microphone on your phone to listen to a political ad. It then takes the short audio fingerprint to match against a database of ads that Sunlight collects to help identify the ad purchaser. It also spits back media reports, spending data from the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to help determine whether the ad is part of a purchase that includes other states where the ad might be running and information about how much the buyer spent.

It’s unclear if Sunlight is using state-level data in its database, so Ad Hawk may not be a great resource for the gubernatorial race. But it could come in handy for the congressional races and the ads that are often designed to influence voters but are cloaked as “non-candidate issue ads.”

– Steve Mistler

BELLOWS WANTS DEBATES

Democrat Shenna Bellows is pressing Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to agree to 10 debates ahead of the November election.

In a letter sent Thursday to her opponent’s campaign, Bellows pointed out that Collins and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen of the 1st District held 10 debates during the 2008 Senate campaign. Bellows said she “admired” that hearty debate schedule and added that she believes Maine voters “want and deserve full engagement from their elected officials and candidates.”

“A campaign without that direct contact and without those questions being answered would be unworthy of the people we both hope to serve,” Bellows wrote. “You and I have different ideas about Social Security reform, student loans, marijuana legalization, the scope of our national security state and many other issues important to people of Maine. Voters should have multiple opportunities to hear our ideas and decide for themselves who better represents their values and their interests.”

In a response, Collins’ campaign did not commit to a specific number of debates but said that debates “will certainly play a central role” in the campaign. Campaign spokesman Lance Dutson noted that any debates will have to be set up around the Senate schedule.

“Senator Collins has never missed a roll call vote and takes that responsibility very seriously,” Dutson wrote. “We believe it is important that the debates be spread geographically throughout the state. It is also important to balance the debate schedule with the time that both candidates will need for traditional campaigning and direct voter contact.”

A recent poll conducted for the Portland Press Herald had Collins leading Bellows 72 percent to 17 percent, with 10 percent undecided.

The number of debates can, itself, incite a robust debate among competing campaigns in today’s electoral politics.

Strong debaters, not surprisingly, push for more chances to show off their skills in front of an audience. Challengers often press for more opportunities to debate incumbents so that they can highlight differences and directly confront their opponent on key issues they hope will resonate with voters. Debates are also free advertising for lesser-funded candidates,which is especially valuable after Labor Day when voters are paying closer attention to politics but paid television advertising can quickly deplete campaign coffers.

Some incumbents’ campaigns prefer to play it safe and insist on a limited number of debates, although that is not always the case in Maine or elsewhere, as evidenced by the 10 debates during the 2008 Senate race. But incumbent members of Congress typically enter a campaign with hefty advantages over their challengers both in terms of voter recognition and fundraising ability.

Bellows is certainly no stranger to public debates, having served as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine for eight years and helping to lead the two referendum campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage. Of course, Collins is an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Senate – often described as “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” – who has frequently found herself at the center of heated policy debates because of her status as a moderate Republican in hyperpartisan Washington. Collins has also not shied away from grilling high-ranking officials during Senate committee hearings.

The debate schedule is likely to become an issue in Maine’s hotly contested gubernatorial race as well. Independent Eliot Cutler, who currently trails in third behind Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, has been pushing most aggressively as he called for at least one policy debate in each of Maine’s 16 counties.

– Kevin Miller

Campaign Notebook is a compilation of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram political blogs, Open Season and Capitol Ticker. Press Herald/Telegram staff writers Steve Mistler, Randy Billings, Eric Russell, Kevin Miller and Matt Byrne and Kennebec Journal reporter Michael Shepherd contribute to the blogs.