July 6, 2013

Mike Tipping: Underestimate LePage's re-election chances at your own risk

His skill at motivating his base could ensure he wins another three-way race for the Blaine House.

You may have heard over the last few weeks that Gov. Paul LePage is facing a significant split in his Republican base, that his off-color remarks have finally turned even his former political allies against him and that his failure to overturn the bipartisan budget compromise means his position is weakened and he's likely to lose in 2014.

Don't believe it for a second.

Three years ago, about a month before the election, I participated in a public radio panel discussion featuring a wide range of Maine political journalists and experts.

The first question to all of us was "Who is going win the governor's race?"

Everyone talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and potential election night scenarios, but I was the only one willing to offer a real prediction: LePage would most likely come out ahead.

The reason I made that prediction then is the same reason I urge caution now. 2014, like 2010, is an off-year, relatively low-turnout election. Who wins depends a great deal on who can motivate their base to make it to the polls, and LePage is very good at motivating his base.

For all his faults as a chief executive, LePage is a good politician. He won a seven-way Republican primary and then a five-way general election by connecting with exactly the right voters -- dissatisfied Republicans and independents who were looking for a conservative change. He passed the test of tea party authenticity, and he inspired a volunteer network that made sure the right people turned out for him to triumph in two elections.

He'll never be a political figure who engenders broad support across the whole population of the state of Maine, but if he can once again get deep support from his side of the electorate, that could be enough to win another three-way election.

For all his verbal missteps as governor, LePage continues to be very good at getting his message out to the part of his base he needs to motivate.

LePage's Vaseline comments may have been crude, but they were right in line with his main message: that he is standing up for the average taxpayer and others aren't. (It's a message that has little basis in truth, but that's beside the point.)

It's quite possible that all that the supportive and persuadable voters he's targeting will remember from the recent controversy is that he seemed to be angrily standing up for what he believed in. They may see that as a virtue and feel some of that same anger.

That's how many of LePage's supporters seem to have viewed his previous controversial remarks and is likely the reason he has maintained a constant voter approval level over his time in office of right around 38 percent -- the same percentage of the electorate he won in 2010.

This time could be different. There likely won't be as much of a national tea party wave, and there's some anecdotal evidence that the embarrassment of these constant controversies may be affecting the opinions of even his staunchest supporters, but I wouldn't count on it.

The two other candidates in the race, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, have different priorities and a complicated path to victory. It won't be enough for them to just motivate their base.

Because they share many of the same moderate and progressive potential voters, they will also have to compete on values and electability with each other in the hope that they can define themselves as the best alternative to LePage.

We saw the first public sign of this dynamic this week, when the Cutler campaign launched an attack claiming that Michaud opposes handgun background checks.

The assertion turned out to be false -- Michaud has been on the record in support of background checks and has been working on the issue in the U.S. House -- but it revealed a broader truth: Cutler obviously views Michaud as a significant enough threat that he's willing to put aside the clean-campaigning, above-the-fray image that he worked so hard to cultivate in 2010 in order to go after him.

Lots of things could happen between now and November of next year. Perhaps LePage will say or do something that will truly end his political career, but that certainly hasn't happened yet.

If LePage can keep his base motivated and if his two opponents are so locked in battle with each other that they are unable to focus on motivating theirs, then prepare yourself for four more years.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He can be contacted at:

writebacktomike@gmail.com

Twitter: @miketipping

 

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