Maine Gov. Paul LePage elevated his criticism of Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King to a national scale Wednesday with a sharply worded opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

The Republican governor took aim at King, an independent who often votes with Democrats, and Collins, a moderate Republican, for their opposition votes during the failed effort by Senate Republicans last week to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Collins was one of only three Republicans who opposed the latest health care bill.

“Sadly, this is no surprise from senators who are more comfortable cutting deals in the polished marble corridors of Washington than meeting with Mainers struggling to make ends meet in Lewiston, Millinocket or Fort Kent,” the Republican governor wrote in the Journal, whose opinion pages are often a must-read for conservatives everywhere.

Late Wednesday, Collins and King issued a joint statement that outlined why they opposed the health care bill and stated their intent to keep working to fix the Affordable Care Act. They made no mention of LePage.

His reference to the “polished marble corridors of Washington” was noteworthy, since the governor, whose second and last term ends in 2018, continues to toy in public with the notion of running for the Senate. He made several trips to Washington this spring to meet with members of Congress and the Trump administration. Many of his meetings were private, according to his official calendar, and neither he nor his staff has answered questions about the meetings, fueling further speculation about his political plans.

LePage had criticized King and Collins this week during a radio interview and in his weekly radio address, in which he called the senators “downright dangerous,” although LePage also opposed the Senate bill originally.

“U.S. senators like Senators Susan Collins and Angus King are enjoying Cadillac health insurance plans while they are mandating Americans ride a moped,” he said. “They are so busy seeking the national limelight, they are ignoring the people in their own state.”

DEFENSE FROM SENS. COLLINS AND KING

The Journal column moves LePage’s continued pressure on the Maine senators to a national stage.

He wrote that the senators should firmly oppose any attempts to expand Medicaid, something he has successfully scaled back in Maine. He also suggested that they look at a state health insurance reform bill that passed in 2012 but was superseded by the Affordable Care Act. That law, PL 90, was not in effect long enough to demonstrate how successful it was, but LePage and others have pushed it as an alternative to the ACA.

Many of the points that LePage made in his column echoed a June 27 letter to Collins urging her to support a “conservative, free market” approach, but his column was far more critical.

“Ms. Collins and Mr. King have ignored these ideas, since they are more interested in preening for the cameras than in making real progress,” LePage wrote.

The joint statement from Collins and King disputed those claims.

“During the course of the past year, we met with thousands of people across our state to discuss ways to improve our health care system,” the senators said. “We held forums with consumers, health care providers and employers; hosted large and small group meetings; met with rural nursing home and hospital executives; and consulted with insurance regulators, actuaries and other experts.

“We spoke with Mainers everywhere from parades, to grocery store aisles, to airports, to workplaces, to our Maine and D.C. offices about the challenges they faced under the current system and what impact the Senate health care bill would have on their access to affordable health care.

“After months of conversations and research, we both reached the same inescapable conclusion that the Senate health care bill would have been extremely harmful to our state, particularly to our most vulnerable populations, including children with disabilities and low-income seniors. Every version of the Senate plan would have increased the number of uninsured by millions and weakened important consumer protections. Premiums and out-of-pocket costs – which are already too high – also would have skyrocketed.”

LePage’s rhetoric – particularly toward Collins, who is a member of his party and has resisted many opportunities to criticize him over the past seven years – could serve multiple purposes.

LePage has entertained the idea of running for the Senate against King next year, although he has repeatedly sent mixed signals about his intentions.

If he were to run, he would need to challenge state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn in the Republican primary and, if he won, would face off against a popular senator in King. Democrats – recognizing King’s strength – would likely sit that race out.

But LePage is watching Collins closely as well. Re-elected to a fourth term in 2014, Collins is a powerful moderate voice in a Senate that has become increasingly polarized. Many, including LePage, believe Collins is ready to step away from the Washington stage and return home to run for governor. Collins has not ruled out a run for governor and has said she’s likely to make her decision this fall.

If Collins runs and wins, she will have to resign from her Senate seat two years before her term ends in 2020 because she couldn’t hold both offices at the same time. Under Maine statute, the governor has the authority to name an interim replacement until a successor is elected. Theoretically, LePage could appoint himself to the seat, although questions about the election of a permanent replacement to serve out the term appear open to legal interpretation, said Kristen Muszynski, director of communications for Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

Some political observers have speculated that Collins could select the interim replacement for her seat if she waits to resign it until just before she’s sworn in as governor.

LEPAGE: COLLINS SOMETIMES UNINFORMED

It’s rare for a U.S. senator to step down in the middle of a term. It last happened in Maine in 1980, when Edmund Muskie was appointed U.S. secretary of state by President Jimmy Carter. That left Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan, a Democrat, to appoint Muskie’s successor. Brennan could have appointed himself – he later ran for the Senate in 1996 and lost to Collins – but instead chose George Mitchell.

LePage’s criticism of Collins is a signal to Republican primary voters and donors that he is unlikely to support her if she does run for governor. His longtime health and human services commissioner, Mary Mayhew, has declared her candidacy and has pledged to continue with many of the reforms that LePage has pushed.

Collins is among the most popular senators in the country, largely because of crossover appeal to independents and Democrats, but she is not universally loved in conservative circles of her own party. A primary might be a tougher challenge for Collins than a general election.

During a radio interview Tuesday, the governor was asked if he had spoken with Collins about the health care vote.

“I spoke with Senator Collins on this. I thought she was coming around and then the vote came and I was so disappointed,” he said. “She is not even giving us a shot at debating on the floor. And Senator King, he’s never talked to us. I mean, Senator King and Representative Pingree have never called our office.”

LePage also accused the senator of being uninformed.

“I have great admiration for Senator Collins. I think when she is well-briefed on an issue, most of the time she will take a reasonable vote,” he said. “But when she is not familiar with what’s happening in her state and she is looking at the national stage, and only the national stage, she makes a lot of errors.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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