Former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, shown in 2018, has registered as a candidate for Maine governor in the 2022 race. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage formally registered as a candidate for Maine governor Thursday, confirming long-standing speculation he would attempt to unseat Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in 2022.

LePage, a former Waterville mayor who served as governor from 2011 to 2019, has launched a website with a countdown clock indicating a public announcement for Monday. His campaign also registered with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which tracks the campaign finances of candidates for state and county office.

Brent Littlefield, a longtime political consultant to LePage, declined to comment on the former governor’s plans Thursday.

“I have no comment other than what you see on the site that’s been launched,” Littlefield said.

He later said that there was a “1000 percent chance” that LePage would be making news on Monday. Littlefield also said LePage would not be making himself available for an interview with the Portland Press Herald on Thursday.

LePage, a firebrand conservative who aligned himself closely to former Republican President Donald Trump, has been hinting he would seek a return to the helm of state government since Mills, who served as the state’s attorney general for six of the eight years LePage was in office, won election in 2018.

LePage, who was term-limited by the state’s Constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, promised to leave Maine if Mills won election – which he did when he established residency in Florida. But he returned to Maine in July 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, re-establishing Maine residency in Edgecomb.

Earlier that year he told a radio talk show that Mills “ought to resign” over her plan for reopening the state’s economy and said he would “challenge Janet Mills or the Democratic Party in 2022.”

Mills’ campaign did not respond to a question Thursday regarding LePage’s entry into the 2022 race.

LePage’s hard-luck life story, growing up on the streets of Lewiston as one of 18 children and the victim of an abusive father, was highlighted in both of his campaigns for governor. LePage, who claims French as his first language, is the first and only Franco-American to be popularly elected to the governor’s office. One other Franco-American served in the office – Alonzo Garcelon, from 1855 to 1856 – but he was elected by the Legislature at the time.

During his eight years in office, LePage regularly made headlines for his combative leadership style and his frequent controversial statements that were often coarse, sometimes vulgar and occasionally racially divisive.

Like Trump, he was constantly at odds with the media, especially Maine’s newspapers, once telling a group of high school students that buying a newspaper in Maine was like paying somebody to lie to you. He also frequently said his biggest regret was that the newspaper industry was not dead yet, and acknowledged deliberately lying to the media.

An obscenity-laced voice message he left on the cellphone of a state lawmaker in 2016 also drew sharp criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, as well as attention to Maine from the national media. He later personally apologized.

But LePage also delivered on his campaign promises and only five weeks after being elected in 2010 he submitted a state budget proposal that sought to cut taxes, address a massive pension liability and trim welfare rolls by making it harder to qualify for assistance. And even when he faced Democratic majorities in the Legislature he pushed through additional changes to the welfare system and expanded income tax cuts, lowering the state’s top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.15 percent.

Politically, LePage sparred not only with Mills, and the loyal Democratic opposition in the Legislature, but also with members of his own Republican Party. In 2016 he took repeated jabs at U.S. Sen. Susan Collins after she voiced her opposition and concern over Trump as the party’s nominee for the White House.

Meanwhile, LePage appeared with Trump during multiple campaign stops in Maine. After Trump won the election, LePage again attacked Collins on talk radio, saying, “I think Susan Collins is done in Maine.”

But Collins, with LePage’s support, went on to handily win re-election in 2020 in what became the most expensive U.S. Senate race in state history.

Ron Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine and observer of state political campaigns, said LePage’s pathway back to the governor’s office could be complicated but is not insurmountable.

“Six months ago I would have guessed that Trump fatigue would have been a big enough thing to make this choice by LePage seem obviously inadequate,” Schmidt said, noting that LePage enjoys an energized based of loyal support in Maine, even though he never captured more than 50 percent of the vote in his bids for office.

In his first election in 2010 LePage won a four-way race featuring a Democrat and two independents, receiving just 37.6 percent of the vote. In his 2014 re-election win he upped that to 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race, still below the 50 percent Mills earned in her election to the office in a three-way race in 2018.

Schmidt said Mills will be difficult to unseat as she’s carved out a niche in Maine politics like that of Collins, in that Mills has served her party loyally but hasn’t overly catered to its most fringe elements.

“There are two ways that can go, though,” Schmidt said. “It could depress excitement among progressive Democrats and if it comes down to a race about how worked up the base is, that could hurt her, but on the other hand it could mean independence for a lot of voters.”

That being said, Mills will be seen as a “non-radical Democrat who can still work to get certain progressive policies passed,” Schmidt said.

James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine Farmington, in Mills’ hometown, said incumbents are usually difficult to beat in Maine. But for Maine Republicans, LePage is likely the ideal candidate.

“He is somebody that doesn’t need to do anything to build his name recognition. Just about everybody in Maine knows who Paul LePage is, has a strong opinion about him,” Melcher said.

Melcher said LePage’s die-hard supporters are also standing by, anxious to get to work for their champion. “He has a very dedicated core of supporters who if you look at the backs of windshields with their profane statements about Janet Mills, (they) certainly want to see her out and have him come back,” Melcher said. “You don’t have to wonder about there being passion behind them.”

No incumbent governor who has sought re-election has been ousted by a challenger since Democrat Ken Curtis defeated incumbent John Reed in 1966. Likewise, no governor in recent history has reclaimed the office after leaving, noted former state Rep. Ken Fredette, who served as House Minority Leader during LePage’s tenure.

Fredette campaigned for former Republican Gov. John McKernan in 1990, when he won re-election over Democratic challenger Joe Brennan, who was trying to reclaim the office he had held for two terms.

Fredette said it’s clear LePage is a strong candidate, who has the name recognition, support and conservative credentials needed to give Mills a legitimate challenge, but history may not be on his side.

“There’s no doubt this will be a hard-fought campaign and a close campaign and of course the unknown is if a strong third-party candidate gets into the race what that could mean,” Fredette said. “But I’ll just leave it at this: The last time a sitting governor was challenged by a former governor the sitting governor won.”

Mills has not made a formal announcement about her plans for 2022, but she has raised more than $13,000 in campaign contributions so far, according to the ethics commission. Other candidates registered in the election for governor are Michael T. Barden, a Green Independent; Michael Stuart Heath, a Republican; and Martin J. Vachon, also a Republican.

Voters will use Maine’s ranked-choice voting law to rank candidates in the 2022 primary elections, but the law does not apply to general election races for governor or the Legislature.

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