September 1, 2013

Dan Demeritt: A tough August, yes, but don't count LePage out just yet

Democrats seem to have the momentum, but as we've learned, 14 months is forever in politics.

If you believe that ominous occurrences always come in groups of three, you can look to the Maine Republican Party over the last two weeks to validate your impression. But better to believe in ghosts and monsters than believe that a fortnight of bad news in August determines future electoral events.

Especially if that August falls in an odd year that also happens to be the third year of one of most productive gubernatorial terms in Maine history. The game is not over yet for Gov. Paul LePage or Republicans. Not by a long shot.

The ominous three would include remarks LePage allegedly offered at a private function and later apologized for concerning President Obama. That was followed by a new public opinion poll showing Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud emerging as the front-runner and the clear alternative to LePage heading into the expected three-way gubernatorial contest in 2014. The final event was the special-election Republican defeat in Senate District 19, where Democrats worked hard to link Republican candidate Paula Benoit to LePage.

In a column that appeared in last week's Maine Sunday Telegram, I took issue with the governor's handling of the Obama comment prompting one Republican state senator to remark, "with friends like Demeritt, who needs enemies?"

I believe your best friends are those who let you know when you are being your own worst enemy. Others weighed in as well and the message was received -- LePage told a national news outlet last week that he now keeps a role of duct tape on his desk as a reminder to keep his mouth shut.

In a battle between tape and temperament, my money is on the latter, but LePage has demonstrated a capacity for channeling his passion in politically positive ways. Especially when the stakes are at their highest. He can do it again.

Winning campaigns are built on momentum and motivation. Democrats have both. If Republicans are going to succeed next year, they will need to reacquire the advantage, or at least fight to a draw. Fortunately for Republicans, they have the time, record of accomplishment and policy positions to seize the upper hand.

Fourteen months is forever in politics, and LePage's ascension in 2010 shows that. He was a virtual unknown heading into that election year and was preparing to offer an inaugural address as Maine's next governor by the end. The governor should continue to talk straight and be passionate about the issues he cares most about. People appreciate that. If he can keep the off-putting under wraps, the impact of past remarks will fade.

Likely independent candidate Eliot Cutler and declared Democrat Michaud offer voters dramatically different choices. For LePage to get another four years, he needs voters casting ballots for the candidate they most like rather than the challenger most likely to oust the governor from the Blaine House. Several months without shots being fired from the hip will help LePage's re-election prospects, and any Republican candidate labeled a LePage ally.

As we close in on the end of the first three years of the LePage administration, it is hard to dispute that the governor has accumulated a long and impactful list of accomplishments. The biggest tax cut in Maine history, regulatory reform, charter schools, market-based health insurance reforms, billions saved in public pension obligations, improvements to our welfare systems and a long-overdue repayment of the hospital debt.

The LePage record contrasts favorably with the independent Cutler, who has never accomplished a thing in elected office, and a likeable Michaud, who has served a dutiful but unremarkable 10 years in Congress.

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