AUGUSTA — Mainers won’t choose their next governor for another 20 months, but some possible candidates are already beginning to jockey for position, build name recognition and earn partisan favor.
Several prominent figures in both parties all but confirmed last week that they would likely be throwing their hats in the ring for the 2018 race for the Blaine House. While more names are sure to surface and it’s too early to know who will be the top contenders – few had heard of Paul LePage 20 months before his election in 2010 – Maine’s next governor may already be laying the groundwork.
Among those who say they are seriously considering a run are Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, car dealership board chairman Adam Lee, and Sanford attorney Adam Cote. All three are Democrats. Among other possible Democratic candidates are former Speaker of the House Mark Eves and lobbyist Betsy Sweet, although they could not be reached to ask about their plans last week.
On the Republican side, former Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett and current Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason confirmed they are also considering a run. Other high-profile Republicans rumored to be pondering a bid or have said they are being urged to run include U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. Philip Harriman, a Yarmouth businessman and former state lawmaker, may also be considering a run as a Republican.
Whoever does take the reins from Gov. LePage in 2019 will in all likelihood inherit some of the same challenges that greeted previous Maine governors: a flagging rural economy, pressure on the state’s remaining manufacturing jobs, especially a declining paper industry, and an ongoing opioid addiction crisis that policymakers in Maine and across the nation are trying to bring under control.
Here are some of the people who could become LePage’s successor.
Justin Alfond, former legislative leader
Alfond may be best known for helping fend off some of LePage’s more conservative policy agenda proposals. As Senate president, he was also frequently a target of LePage’s criticism and an occasional personal attack. Alfond also led minority Democrats in the Senate and was frequently at the center of high-profile negotiations on energy policy, the state budget, and the opioid addiction crisis. Still, in 2016, Alfond forged a new working relationship with LePage and worked with the conservative governor on several issues, including a $3.7 million bill that expanded treatment for addiction and also added law enforcement staff to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. The grandson of the late Harold Alfond, a Maine business icon and philanthropist who founded the Dexter Shoe Co., Alfond grew up in Dexter but makes his home in Portland, where he is a partner in Bayside Bowl, among other ventures.
“I’m definitely looking through it all and considering, that’s where I am,” Alfond said when asked if he might run. “I am considering it.” Alfond said he would make a decision within the next few months.
Adam Cote, businessman with military background
Cote is a renewable-energy entrepreneur and attorney who has also served 20 years in the Maine National Guard, including active duty deployments to combat zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia.
“I am almost positive I will run,” said Cote. He last ran for public office in 2008, when he finished second in the Democratic primary in Maine’s 1st Congressional District behind Chellie Pingree, who went on to win the seat and has been re-elected four times.
Cote said he fully expects the field will be crowded, but he has focused less on who else might run and more on what he would need to do to run a successful statewide campaign. But he also said he has had conversations with other potential Democratic candidates and told them, out of respect, “I’m in.”
A father of five children ages 5 to 12 years old, Cote said his focus as a candidate will be on economic growth and quality job creation, something he says Maine needs to keep its next generation here and to attract new, young families to the state.
He also said Maine is ready for a more positive tone from its top leader, and he has a different perspective because of his military experience.
“I’ve been to parts of the world where leaders focus on dividing people by race, religion and country of origin,” Cote said. “I’ve been to some pretty dangerous places and that’s not the kind of leadership I want for Maine and that’s not the kind of leadership I think we want for our country.”
Adam Lee, businessman and environmental advocate
Lee, of Cumberland, said he, too, is close to making a final decision. He said he considered running for elected office in the past, but with his children now in college or on their own career paths, he can give serious focus to a possible political career.
“I am considering it and have been considering it for some time,” Lee said. “A number of people have encouraged me to run, but as Angus (King) would say, ‘Politics is seven of your close friends telling you to run and thinking they represent the rest of Maine.’ ”
Some have suggested that recent video advertisements for Lee’s car dealerships – Lee Auto Malls – appear to be partly aimed at increasing his statewide name recognition. The ads promote the family-oriented philosophy of the business and end with Lee addressing the cameras and saying, “Lee may be just different enough for you.” Lee, who has been a TV frontman for years and is chairman of the board for his family’s business, said the ads are part of an ongoing sales campaign and unrelated to any possible political aspirations.
Lee has been a prominent donor to Democratic candidates and causes and is best known in political circles as an environmental advocate, serving in advisory roles for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and as a board member for the Maine League of Conservation Voters. Lee is the son of the late Shep Lee, a force in the Democratic Party who supported and advised well-known politicians such as Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell.
Janet Mills, attorney general
Mills, a former district attorney and state lawmaker from Farmington, is serving her second term as Maine’s attorney general.
“While I love my job as attorney general, I can’t ignore the fact that people approach me on the street every day asking me if I would please run for governor. Honestly. I am honored and flattered by these requests,” she said. “I take the prospect very seriously and will give it earnest consideration in the coming months.”
As the state’s top lawyer and a Democrat, she has frequently been at odds with the Republican governor. Last year, for example, Mills challenged LePage’s decision to host a meeting of an educational task force behind closed doors, a dispute that ended with a fine levied against the LePage administration for violating the state’s open meetings law.
Mills has long been active in Democratic politics and comes from a politically prominent family, with siblings who have served in government on both sides of the aisle. Peter Mills is a Republican who has also served in the Legislature, made an unsuccessful run for governor and is now executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority under LePage. Dr. Dora Anne Mills served as the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.
Other potential Democratic candidates in the wings:
Mark Eves of North Berwick is a former state lawmaker who served four terms in the House of Representatives, including two terms as speaker of the House. Eves left the Legislature in 2016 because of term limits.
Betsy Sweet of Hallowell is an alternative healing practitioner, progressive lobbyist, and former head of the Maine Women’s Lobby. Messages to Eves and Sweet went unreturned.
Susan Collins, U.S. senator
Collins is the most well-known politician on the short list of possible Republican candidates. She also is among Maine’s most popular elected officials, having won re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2014 with 68 percent of the vote.
As a lonely moderate Republican in Washington, D.C., she’s attracted a lot of national attention for standing, on occasion, with Democrats or for cobbling together compromises, including one that helped end a federal government shutdown in 2013 over a stalled government funding package. She also has taken public stands against Republican President Trump, first saying she could not support his candidacy and most recently voting on the floor against his nominee for education secretary. Still, Collins also has been the subject of increasing criticism from Democrats and independents in Maine who want her to take a stronger stand against Trump.
Collins has previously run for governor, winning the Republican primary but losing to independent Angus King in a three-way race in 1994. She got 23 percent of the vote and trailed King and Democrat Joe Brennan. She was elected to the U.S. Senate two years later.
Collins isn’t revealing any plans, one way or the other.
“While many Mainers have encouraged Sen. Collins to run for governor, she is focused on her job representing Maine in the United States Senate,” Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins, said in a recent statement. “In making any future decisions, Sen. Collins will assess how best she can continue to serve the people of Maine.”
Rick Bennett, party head and former legislative leader
Bennett said he is testing the waters and looking for feedback from not only those in his own party but Mainers statewide.
“I am contemplating it,” Bennett said of a run for governor. “But I am also being fairly methodical about it.” Bennett promised to be “fairly brisk” in making up his mind, but first wanted feedback from others around the state. He said he has had “oblique” conversations with LePage about running for the office.
Bennett served two terms in the Maine House and four in the state Senate, including one term as Senate president in a unique power-sharing agreement with Democrats in 2001. He also has had a career as an executive in the corporate finance industry.
Bennett ran for Congress in Maine’s 2nd District in 1994 and lost to Baldacci. He also ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012, coming in third in a six-way Republican primary behind Charlie Summers, who would lose to King in the general election, and Bruce Poliquin, who later was elected to Congress.
Bennett said part of what any Republican candidate for governor would need to figure out before entering a primary battle would be what LePage’s political base sees as “the big tasks left undone.” He said he doesn’t believe the early entrance of Republican candidates seeking the governor’s office would politically undermine LePage’s final two years in office, although some pundits have speculated that could happen with a crowded field of candidates or with an emergent front-runner.
“I don’t think there is going to be anything lame duck about Paul LePage,” Bennett said.
Support from LePage could also be considered key for any potential Republican candidate, meaning LePage could also have a large role to play in winnowing the field.
Bruce Poliquin, 2nd District congressman
Poliquin also has run for governor before, coming in fifth in a seven-way Republican primary that was won by LePage on his way to becoming governor in 2010.
Poliquin served as Maine state treasurer and also made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012 in the same five-way primary that was won by Summers. In 2014 he was elected to the U.S. House from the 2nd District, beating Democrat Emily Cain.
In the House, Poliquin for the most part has been a loyal party member but on occasion has voted against the caucus on issues he feels would not be in Maine’s best interest. He defended his seat against Cain in 2016 in a bruising campaign that was among the most costly in the U.S.
Prior to his entrance on the political scene, Poliquin, who resides in Oakland, made a fortune as a New York City investment manager before developing real estate, becoming state treasurer and winning his congressional seat. He’s been frequently targeted by Democrats for being a Wall Street insider, but many in the business community have praised his insights, acumen, energy and enthusiasm as he works for Maine in D.C.
A message to Poliquin’s staff in Washington seeking comment went unreturned.
Garrett Mason, state Senate majority leader
Mason, a resident of Lisbon Falls, confirmed he is considering a run.
Serving seven years in the Legislature has made him realize he has goals for the state that haven’t been achieved yet, he said. “It’s probably one of the worst-kept secrets in Augusta that I’ve been considering,” Mason said. As majority leader, Mason has worked to hold together a small majority.
He said he would make a decision within the next few months but his focus currently was on his work as majority leader. He said most politicians in Augusta, at some point, “if they are being honest, would admit they’ve thought about running for governor.”
Like Bennett, Mason said he was still gauging whether others might like to see him run. He said MasonforMaine Twitter and Instagram accounts were simply holdovers from a revamping of his state Senate campaign from 2016 and were never deployed. Still, Mason said he was holding on to the accounts because, after all, it wouldn’t hurt to have those handles if he should decide to run. Mason, who has a bachelor’s degree in marketing, also has previously worked in the sports industry and served as communications director for the Lewiston Maineiacs, a former Lewiston-based Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team.
Mary Mayhew, health and human services commissioner
Mayhew has long been rumored to be a candidate, but hasn’t confirmed it and did not respond to requests for an interview last week.
Mayhew has been LePage’s commissioner of DHHS since he took office and has been one of the more forceful and visible members of his Cabinet.
Before that, she had been a political campaign manager and a longtime lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association and other clients.
She has received praise from LePage for her fiscal management at DHHS, but her critics have also been numerous and vocal. Her tenure at the helm of one of the state’s most important and costly departments has also been pockmarked with controversy. Mayhew has led the LePage administration’s efforts to reduce welfare eligibility and rein in costs of public assistance and Medicaid.
Mayhew’s name is often mentioned as the candidate who would continue LePage’s agenda, but when asked by reporters, Mayhew has demurred on the topic of a gubernatorial bid.
She has become a familiar name in Maine, but some also say her background and her current role could make her an easy target for political opponents from either side of the aisle.
Some observers have pointed to the reservation of a domain name, “mayhewformaine.com,” as an indication that Mayhew is laying groundwork for a campaign. But it is unclear based on publicly available records who actually purchased the domain name.
Other Republican candidates in the wings include:
Former state Rep. Joshua Tardy, an attorney from Newport, served as House minority leader and currently works as a lobbyist. He is well respected within the halls of Augusta, especially among conservative lawmakers, but he’s also made a name for himself by being able to broker bipartisan agreements that break political stalemates. Some have suggested Tardy may be in line for an appointment to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He has declined public comment on the possibility he may run for governor.
Former state Sen. Phil Harriman is a Yarmouth resident and the co-founder of the investment and brokerage firm Lebel & Harriman LLP. Harriman served four terms in the state Senate from 1992 to 2000. He is also a frequent political commentator on local television and radio and has written political commentary for the Portland Press Herald.
A message to Harriman also went unreturned.
At least one, Deril Stubenrod of Clinton, has filed his initial campaign finance paperwork with the Maine Ethics Commission indicating he is making an entry into the race.
Shawn Moody, businessman and political independent
Independents are also likely to begin their campaigns, and at least one, Shawn Moody, said he was thinking seriously about running.
Moody owns Moody’s Collision Centers, a chain of auto-body repair shops around Maine, and ran for the office in 2010. He came in next to last in a five-way race that included LePage, Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler and Kevin Scott.
Moody’s plain talk and sincere sentiments about his love of Maine and its people, along with a concern with dysfunction of a two-party system that’s often in gridlock, struck a chord with Maine’s many independent voters.
Since 2010 Moody has significantly raised his name recognition and statewide profile, accepting LePage appointments to both the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System boards of trustees. Moody said he told LePage he would only serve if he could serve on both boards, as he views increased cooperation between the systems as key to ensuring that more of Maine’s low- and middle-income students gain access to a quality higher education and the job training they need to excel. Moody’s business has earned frequent accolades, including the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Business, the Maine DEP Environmental Leader Award and the Top 40 Best Places to Work in Maine. Moody said he has been talking with his wife, Chrissi, and contemplating seriously another shot at the Blaine House. He said he would make his decision within the next few weeks.
Plenty of time for surprises
Political insiders say that, while some potential candidates are clearly laying the groundwork, it’s far too soon to know exactly who will be in the hunt a year from now.
Brent Littlefield, a senior political adviser to LePage and a Washington, D.C.-based Republican campaign strategist and consultant who has worked to elect Republican candidates around the country, said it was still a long time until Election Day 2018.
Littlefield said that 20 months before LePage first became the Republican Party’s nominee for governor, “nobody outside of Waterville knew who Paul LePage was.”
Littlefield said that, as in 2010, a dark-horse candidate from either side of the aisle or even an independent could emerge to upend any conventional thought about who might be able to win the Blaine House next.
After a bruising 2016 presidential campaign, Littlefield said voters don’t even want to start thinking about the 2018 gubernatorial race.
“I do think it is a very risky process this far out to try and speculate and pick candidates for nearly two years from now,” Littlefield said.
But Lance Dutson, another Republican campaign consultant who has worked for Collins and has been an outspoken critic of LePage, said there’s little doubt there is a lot going on behind the scenes even 20 months out.
He said if higher-profile possibilities make it clear they are running, the field will likely thin considerably, but if they don’t, there will likely be a growing list of potential candidates.
“A lot of chess goes on in thinking about this,” Dutson said, agreeing there could very well be a potential candidate whom nobody sees coming or one who may seem inviable at first but rises to the top, much like LePage in 2010 and Trump in 2016.
Correction: This story was updated at 11:10 a.m. on Feb. 12 to correct Adam Lee’s hometown and to clarify that Justin Alfond did respond to the Press Herald’s questions.
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at: