A question I keep hearing any time I’m in a group of people talking about how the Mills administration is dealing with the COVID pandemic:

“Can you imagine if this happened when Paul LePage was governor?”

Short answer: Yes, I can.

I can say with a high degree of certainty that, faced with a global pandemic, LePage would have made up a story about what was really happening; he would have blamed someone else for the problem he invented, and he would have said that the solution to the problem was to cut services for the poor and taxes for the rich. Meanwhile, a lot of people would have gotten sick.

Now LePage is back, running for his old job in 2022 against the incumbent governor, Janet Mills, and her handling of COVID is shaping up as the top issue.

You might not think of the pandemic as a weak point for Mills. We have some of the lowest rates of infection in the nation, the highest rates of vaccination and a rebound in the tourism economy, where the biggest problem is finding people to fill all the jobs.

But that’s not how LePage sees it. He offers an alternate reality where we would have had the same low rates without emergency restrictions that disrupted the world in 2020. In this telling, Mills gets no credit for lives saved but gets blamed for every death and every dollar lost.

So, what would a LePage pandemic look like? We could apply what we learned from his handling of the opioid crisis (“We can’t just simply throw money at something that isn’t working because they’re just going to die,” he told the Legislature in 2017) or when conditions at the Riverview Psychiatric Center led to federal sanctions. (Rather than fix the problems, LePage mused: “You know, frankly, I think we ought to just go at it alone and not take the federal money.”)

If that’s too much of a stretch, you could look at the Republican governors around the nation who took a LePage-like approach to public health. How’d they do?

Texas, where Gov. Gregg Abbott has gone to court to prevent both public and private entities from mandating mask wearing, has lost 55,000 people, at a rate of 192 per 100,000 population.

Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis champions an expensive, brand-name pharmaceutical COVID treatment but won’t require anyone to get vaccinated, has lost 42,000 people, at a rate of 197 per 100,000 population.

South Dakota, led by right-wing superstar Kristi Noem, who had the nerve to come to Maine to campaign for Donald Trump last year while her hands-off public health policies were spreading COVID across the upper Midwest, has lost 2,000 people, or 233 per 100,000.

Maine has lost 926 people to COVID, a rate of 69 per 100,000.

Every one of those deaths was a tragic loss to a family, but it could have been much worse. With a governor like Abbott, we could have lost 2,496 lives. With a DeSantis type at the helm, it could have been 2,561.

With policies like the ones Noem insisted on in South Dakota, we could be looking at 3,000 deaths.

Is there any reason to assume that Paul LePage would have taken a back seat to any of those governors?

The Republicans don’t have a lot of choices in the race against Mills.

LePage can’t say it’s her tax policy that’s dragging him out of retirement. Mills has held the line on the LePage tax cuts, under fierce opposition from her own party.

Too much spending? Maybe. But the budget stabilization or “rainy day” fund is $491 million, or $282 million more than what was in it when LePage left office.

Gas prices are a little higher, but the governor can’t control that. A lot of people hate Central Maine Power’s energy corridor, but LePage not only supported it when he was in office but also took a job promoting it when he left.

That leaves the anti-COVID activism that has become the most dynamic force in the Republican Party this year

This coalition of anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-mandate protesters has merged with the conspiracy theorists who believe the 2020 election was stolen through fraud. It’s a heady mix of issues that drew Republican lawmakers to speak to 400 people at a State House rally Aug. 17.

“To be clear,” announced Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn to a cheering crowd, “this is war.”

It feels a lot like the anti-Obamacare, tea party wave that LePage rode to the Blaine House in 2010, and it is a good fit for him now.

LePage will want to make the election a referendum on who would have done a better job handling COVID. Picturing what that would have been like should be easy.


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