AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s comments about the race of heroin dealers in Maine and a raunchy voice mail he left for a Democratic state representative are likely to hurt Republicans running for election this fall.

Campaign operatives, party leaders and candidates themselves said Wednesday they expect to face questions from Maine voters about their responses to LePage’s behavior.

“I mean Democrats have just got to be salivating over this,” said Lance Dutson, a Republican campaign operative who has been openly critical of LePage’s coarse language and behavior. Dutson said Democrats have been openly critical of LePage, but may actually be thanking him deep down. “You rarely get anything that’s this easy to sell,” he said.

Republicans hold a five-seat majority in the Maine Senate and are in the minority by nine seats in the Maine House.

In 2014, there were 16 House and nine Senate races decided by less than 5 percent of the vote, and these so-called “purple districts” – neither solidly Republican red or Democratic blue – are again likely to be political battlegrounds this fall. Undoubtedly, Democrats will be looking to capitalize on what incumbent Republicans who hold some of those seats did or didn’t do to address their Republican governor.

And the response from voters could be “disastrous for the Republican Party in Maine,” said one member of the Republican Party’s state committee, who asked not to be identified because of concern that LePage would retaliate against him.

SPECTER OF DAMAGING POLITICAL ADS

In his third attempt in as many days to explain himself and apologize for his attack against Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, LePage seemed to anticipate Wednesday how long the shadow of his latest controversies could be.

“It’s frustrating when you hear people talk of cheap political stunts to hurt their opponent and not do the right thing,” he said.

But even as LePage vowed to “never talk about it again,” his sound bites had already spread far and wide. Political operatives like Dutson were imagining the 30-second television ads featuring a bleeped-out, cussing LePage, followed by the attack of a booming-voiced narrator stating that a specific Republican lawmaker – likely one in a tight race – did nothing to stand up to the governor or rebuff him.

Drafts of post cards that will soon be filling voter’s mailboxes also were starting to take shape in the imaginations of political operatives.

It’s a concern that Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, readily acknowledges. He’s among a small group of lawmakers – both Republican and Democrat – who won election or re-election in 2014 by margins of less than 5 percentage points. In Thibodeau’s case, he won by less than one point and he’s facing the same Democratic challenger this year.

“They are already running these types of ad,” Thibodeau said. “You’ve seen it, you know, ‘Who does Mike Thibodeau work for?’ ” He said inaction by Republican lawmakers toward a governor who seems to get a free pass nearly every time he makes an offensive comment is already taking its toll.

“The reality is, this is going to be a campaign issue. There is no question that they will use this and, well, the governor has Republicans in a really terrible position,” Thibodeau said. “We are very concerned. This is not what you want going on 70 days before an election. It is not something you want going on anytime, so there’s no question it’s going to have an impact.”

Thibodeau said he campaigned door to door Tuesday and what people wanted to talk about is, “What has transpired with the governor?”

It’s a sentiment that Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, also shared. On Sunday, in a post to her constituents on Facebook, Volk questioned LePage’s mental health as well as raising the specter of substance abuse. Her comments were part of a building chorus of criticism recently aimed at LePage.

“People are upset, I can tell you that,” Volk said in an interview Wednesday. “Some people want him to resign, others want everyone to move on, but people are thanking me for taking a stand.”

MAINE PARTY’S LEADERS DISPLEASED

Some Republican lawmakers who have been openly critical of LePage also said that criticism and their attempts to work in a bipartisan fashion could ultimately hurt them.

Sen. David Woodsome, R-North Waterboro, said he, too, knew the coming campaign season won’t be pretty.

“It’s going to be vicious, I think. I’m not looking forward to the accusations, the assumptions and the past stated comments (of LePage),” Woodsome said. “But this isn’t just the governor, the Republicans own this, the Democrats own this – the Democrats are on a feeding frenzy and they aren’t going to let up.”

Woodsome said he would proceed based on his own beliefs, noting that he did support LePage’s efforts on a number of important issues, including the state budget and building the economy. “This bickering and this knife-throwing, it’s exciting,” Woodsome said. “You know, you get your adrenaline pumped up and everything, but where does hate and discontent lead to? It’s usually a dead end somewhere.”

Even LePage’s ardent supporters acknowledged Wednesday that he had provided more ammunition to the opponents of Republicans, and the collateral damage could be widespread.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Democrats might try to damage their opponents by linking them to LePage. He agreed the distraction was “unhelpful.”

“There are some things we would like to be doing differently. We would like to be focusing on some things other than this issue,” Savage said.

Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett also issued a veiled admonishment Wednesday of LePage’s recent outbursts. It read in part, “Republicans believe that those who oppose our policies and candidates are not our enemies, but our adversaries. As such, we believe our level of discourse should reflect that our political adversaries generally want the best for our state and nation, just as we do, but disagree with our approach.”

SUPPORT FOR POLICIES, NOT CONDUCT

Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, who is running for re-election in one of those arguably purple districts against a Democratic opponent who has beaten her once and lost to her once over the past six years, said she was horrified and disappointed by LePage’s most recent controversial comments.

She defended LePage as a hard-working governor who has advanced policies she agreed with, and said she believes in forgiveness. But she also questioned whether LePage’s temper was triggered by something besides just the stress of being in the spotlight.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but maybe he had a couple of cocktails and it gave him some liquid courage, or maybe a bottle of liquid stupid,” O’Connor said. “There’s absolutely no question in my mind what he did was wrong. I can’t excuse it, but I don’t think he should resign from office because I’m really concerned about policy and I think the policies he has brought forward, like lowering our tax burden, is moving Maine forward.”

O’Connor’s opponent, Democrat Joshua Plante, also of Berwick, said he had a clear position on LePage, even though some voters he talked to seemed to be willing to forgive.

“There are a lot of folks who are willing to sweep that under the rug as something he said in the heat of the moment,” Plante said. “I don’t know how to respond to that. He issued basically a threat against the life of a legislator, and that is below any office of any elected official and he must resign. To me there is no compromise on that.”

MORE CONSEQUENCES DOWN THE ROAD

Outgoing House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Republicans were clearly aware that the consequences they could face for LePage’s latest actions also could extend beyond the elections in November. If Democrats gain enough seats, Republicans would lose their ability to block any future efforts to remove LePage from office.

“They clearly get the seriousness of the situation that the governor finds himself in, and that they find themselves in as a party,” Eves said. “They clearly understand that there are electoral consequences to it. I think they need to be nervous about an outcome in November that leads to the removal of the governor (and replacement) with a Democratic governor.”

Staff Writers Kevin Miller and Eric Russell contributed to this report.