On Nov. 2, the Pine Tree State breathed new life into the old adage, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”
For the first time since the 1960s, Republicans won both the governor’s mansion and the state legislature. Governor-elect Paul LePage, the 62-year-old mayor of Waterville, triumphed with only 38.3 percent of the vote because the opposition split between independent candidate Eliot Cutler and Democratic standard-bearer Libby Mitchell. In the state house, however, the GOP grabbed 23 additional seats to earn a 78-person majority. It also won 20 of the 35 seats in the state senate. In other words, LePage has enough of a majority to push his agenda.
What will that agenda be? Conservative, certainly. During the gubernatorial campaign, LePage earned the Left’s ire for his ideological consistency. Rare among Maine Republicans, LePage is an economic and social conservative, making him a favorite of the tea parties. The former general manager of Marden’s, a chain of retail stores in Maine, LePage wants to bring efficiencies into the state government. He plans to institute zero-based budgeting, audit every state agency, and set performance benchmarks. He also wants to cut the income tax to 5 percent and eliminate taxes on estates and pensions altogether.
LePage’s greatest political virtue, however, is his credibility on some key issues. When he was eleven, he fled an abusive family and took to the streets. After years of floating among odd jobs and caretaker families, he worked his way through Husson University. Now, LePage promises to reform the state’s welfare program by capping its benefits to five years and requiring recipients to perform community service if paid employment proves elusive. Unlike many of his opponents, LePage can say he’s not only thought about the issue; he’s lived it. Moreover, Waterville is a blue town, and LePage governed it effectively. Although the national press presents him as a fire-eater, Maine’s political observers say LePage is a pragmatist.
That said, LePage faces challenges, particularly himself. On the campaign trail, he occasionally lost his cool. In September, it became known that LePage’s wife had incorrectly claimed tax breaks in both Maine and Florida, where she was taking care of her mother. Although she paid the taxes she owed, the press hounded LePage on the issue, prompting him to bark at a reporter: “Let’s stop the bull****.” Later that month, in another bout of impolitic phrasing, the candidate told a group of fishermen: “And as your governor, you’re gonna be seeing a lot of me on the front page saying ‘Gov. LePage tells Obama to go to hell.’” It’s no surprise, then, that LePage’s team has limited the media’s access to him. Multiple requests for comment for this article were not returned.
LePage’s biggest substantive challenge is a $1 billion shortfall in the state budget. Conservative activists are nervous that LePage and his more ideologically suspect counterparts in the legislature will raise taxes to fill the gap. “It’s really uncertain how many tea-party-minded people are in the house and senate,” says Andrew Ian Dodge, the coordinator of the Maine Tea Party Patriots. “The Maine Republican party is fairly ‘squishy,’ as some people call it.” One legislator Dodge distrusts is Kevin Raye, the Republican leader in the state senate. A moderate on social issues, Raye is also wary of such educational reforms as charter schools and vouchers, which LePage favors. For his part, Raye says he’s been skeptical of these reforms in the past because of the way the state distributed money between urban and rural areas. “With that formula in place, the concept of creating new schools to compete further for precious resources has been a frightening prospect for rural legislators,” Raye tells me. “Now that we have a legislature that I think will be more friendly to rural Maine in general, I’m more open to the concept of charter schools.”
Republicans may disagree on education, but they do agree that the state health-insurance program, DirigoChoice, has got to go. The signature achievement of current Democratic governor John Baldacci, the program spent $30 million last year on insurance subsidies for around 7,000 low-income Mainers. LePage hopes to nix the program, as does Rep. Phil Curtis, the new Republican majority leader in the state house. Asked whether the Democrats will take kindly to Republican budget-cutting, Curtis responds, “I don’t expect a whole lot of cooperation.”
He shouldn’t. Still shell-shocked from their historic loss, Maine Democrats are plotting their return to power. They’ve already got a line of attack against LePage: If the governor-elect were to keep all the promises he made during the campaign — that is, all the promises to cut taxes — the budget gap would widen to $2 billion. The Democrats also plan to remind the GOP that the last five budgets they passed garnered Republican votes, and they will expect similar bipartisanship. In other words, they won’t take cuts to their favorite programs lying down.
Maine’s new governor confronts a raft of difficulties: a limited electoral mandate, a rocky coalition between moderate and conservative Republicans, and a stubborn Democratic opposition. So far, however, legislative leaders say he’s handling the transition well. “I’ll give [him] credit. I received a call from the governor-elect and we had a good conversation,” Rep. Seth Berry, a Democrat, says. Curtis concurs: “Everybody is in the loop.”
LePage is reaching across the aisle while remaining committed to his conservative principles. He has a tough road ahead, but he’s off to a good start.
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.