AUGUSTA — Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s political foes say recent reports that he held meetings with an extremist group – one that a new book links to a domestic terrorist movement – raise concerns about his personal beliefs and judgment.
But despite attacks from his opponents in the close three-way battle for the Blaine House, the latest controversy surrounding the governor with a tendency to speak bluntly won’t likely erode support from his loyal base, political observers said. Even so, it could affect fundraising and further galvanize voters already eager to defeat him in November, they said.
“I think that it’s different than the off-the-cuff comments, and it could have the potential to be more politically dangerous for LePage,” said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.
In an excerpt from an upcoming book, liberal activist Mike Tipping writes that LePage met with members of the Constitutional Coalition at least eight times last year, citing recordings and documents obtained through the state’s Freedom of Access Act.
Tipping links the group to the “sovereign citizen” movement, which is characterized by anti-government views and sometimes violence, earning it the label of domestic terrorist movement from the federal government.
Members of the Maine coalition deny they’re associated with the movement but admit they share many of its views.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor regularly meets with people who hold a variety of ideas, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with all of them. She declined to make him available for an interview.
LePage “believes a healthy democracy requires public officials to hear all varying viewpoints from the people of Maine,” she said in a statement. “Here, the group continued to request meetings and, in line with his open door policy, he agreed.”
His campaign contends that the issue has been blown out of proportion and that Tipping is trying to damage the governor’s reputation and sway the election. Tipping works for a liberal activist group that has endorsed LePage’s Democratic challenger, Mike Michaud.
Yet LePage’s solid base of support – the 38 percent of voters who propelled him to victory in a three-way race in 2010 – is unlikely to shift no matter what he says or does, said Christian Potholm, a political strategist and professor at Bowdoin College.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s very unusual in politics,” he said.
Republicans accuse Democrats of playing politics with LePage’s willingness to listen to viewpoints that span the political spectrum. Even so, Republican Party spokesman David Sorensen said liberal activists’ attacks on LePage for years haven’t affected his support and he’s confident this latest one will blow over, too.
“Is (LePage) going to be responsible for the views of every single person who walks into the Blaine House to speak to the governor? That doesn’t seem fair,” Sorenson said.
But the revelation could influence how much money outside groups, like the Republican Governors Association, choose to pump into Maine to help LePage maintain his seat, Melcher said.
Tipping writes that the four-member Constitutional Coalition sought help from the governor to arrest and execute House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond for treason for violating the U.S. Constitution.
Both the governor and members of the group have denied those claims.
Wayne Leach, a member of the coalition, rejects the notion that they’re radicals and said they’re peacefully trying to eliminate laws and amendments they believe infringe on their constitutional rights.
“Our Founding Fathers were radicals. They took on the biggest nation in the world,” he said. “I’m just trying to straighten out government a bit.”
With about four months until Election Day, the news that Le- Page met several times with the group – while at the same time refusing to meet with Democratic legislative leaders – drew fierce criticism from Michaud and the third candidate in the race, independent Eliot Cutler.
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said the issue will further energize voters already embarrassed by the governor’s often off-color remarks.
“It motivates them to put someone back in the Blaine House who’s respectful, decent and honest,” he said.