Politics & Policy

Stone Brain Rises

The press mocks him, political elites hate him, but the people of Maine like Paul LePage even more than they did four years ago.

Consider the following candidate. He’s the former mayor of a blue-collar town and a staunch tea-partier. He once said that a critical member of the state legislature was “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” One of his first acts in statewide office was to tear down a labor-department mural that glorified unions. He instructed the NAACP to “kiss my butt.” He’s often quarreled with journalists and once joked about bombing a prominent newspaper. He’s bulbous, occasionally volatile, and has a thick New England accent.

If you were a Republican political consultant you’d probably respond to this client with severe heartburn and possibly all-out coronary failure. Yet Paul LePage, who earned all the above demerits and many, many more, was reelected governor of Maine earlier this week, trouncing his Democratic opponent Mike Michaud by five points after he was widely expected to lose. He achieved this feat exactly one day after quipping that one of his most sulfurous critics should be put on suicide watch.

This led pundits to howl about the state of Pine Tree State politics. Maine is supposed to be moderate! Consensus-building! Home of the nation’s most mild-mannered politicians, like Senators Susan Collins and Angus King! How did a conservative named “America’s Craziest Governor” by Politico Magazine, dubbed  “Stone Brain” by Maine elder Stephen King, win reelection? Don’t they read Politico in Maine?

Some of LePage’s success must be attributed to independent candidate Eliot Cutler, whose presence on the ballot four years ago threw LePage his first victory and who almost certainly siphoned off votes from Michaud this year. In 2010 Cutler was a serious contender, with LePage winning 38 percent to Cutler’s 36 percent and Democrat Libby Mitchell’s 19 percent — hardly a Republican mandate.

This year Cutler was a much smaller presence, so small that he announced a pseudo-concession days before the election and instructed supporters to vote for other candidates if they didn’t think he could win. (Senator Angus King, an independent, promptly switched his endorsement from Cutler to Michaud.) The final count was LePage 48 percent, Michaud 43 percent, Cutler 8 percent. LePage, long viewed by insiders as doomed, increased his total by almost 74,000 votes. A Portland Press Herald poll taken days before the election found LePage beating Michaud even in a head-to-head match-up without Cutler.

Republicans also took control of Maine’s state senate after losing it in 2012 and increased their share in the state house, meaning LePage probably benefited from general voter fury with Democrats. He was further boosted by a ballot initiative to prohibit the baiting and trapping of bears, which drew out conservative “no” voters from Maine’s more remote parts. (“The bear question could seriously influence the election,” said no other state in at least 100 years.)

But there was something else at work here. “LePage performed as expected in rural precincts in the interior and Down East,” according to the Portland Press Herald. “On top of that, the governor did well in populated southern Maine and, in some cases, beat Michaud in coastal towns that traditionally swing Democratic.” Colin Woodard, author of the aforementioned Politico piece, wrote after the election: “It turns out that many Mainers embraced the key goals of LePage’s governorship: cutting taxes, environmental and labor regulations, welfare services, and public spending.”

A key political narrative, shouted endlessly from every rooftop and out of every manhole in Washington, is that Republicans need to restrain tea-party fiscal conservatives and broker consensus with Democrats if they want to win elections. LePage’s success puts the lie to that line. He signed into law the largest tax cut in Maine history, reformed the state’s welfare system, attacked regulations, and did all this while mocking, abusing, and figuratively throttling his critics.

Democrats portray low-tax conservatives as Dickensian misers plunging street urchins out into the cold. LePage has a ready response for this: He was that street urchin. One of 18 children, he was beaten by his father and ran away from home at age eleven. He lived on the streets of Lewiston until he found his way into the care of foster parents who encouraged him to attend Husson College in Bangor. He thrived there and later went into business, and then politics.

Willa Cather wrote: “There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up so soon.” Whether they’ll admit it or not, political elites view LePage with more than a hint of classism, as a child who hasn’t been sufficiently schooled in governing niceties about never picking fights with journalists and moderating upon election and all that rot. His damning flaw to them is that he’s a normal human being, a stage out of which politicians are expected to mature.

Yet LePage’s reelection shows that a healthy chunk of the electorate is hungry for an everyman, even one who makes the occasional (or more than occasional) gaffe. They don’t regard ideology as a sin, but they have no tolerance for inauthenticity — the sort of inauthenticity demanded by Washington image consultants and media trainers.

LePage’s fellow governor Chris Christie is the Jimi Hendrix of authenticity politics: He came along and everything changed. Without warning, a stridently Republican populist could get elected in stridently Democratic New Jersey by virtue of being blunt. Morning Joe’s besweatered elect tried to explain this away by calling Christie a moderate, probably a tough sell for Planned Parenthood, which Christie defunded, or for Jersey labor unions, which Christie thrashed. And while he chummed it up with the experts at MSNBC’s coffee table, Christie was undermining the flacks in the city around them by making wonderfully boorish politics acceptable again. You don’t have to agree with Christie, or even like him, to think this is a heroic accomplishment.

LePage is more unpredictable than Christie. He doesn’t have the New Jersey governor’s sense of timing, and his proclivity for making clumsy comments is far greater. So while LePage didn’t win reelection by Christie’s china-rattling 22-point margin, he did produce enough voters who wanted to be governed by someone who was brash, forthright, even a little different. Throw in a genuinely improving state economy and you’ve got yourself a political brand. As one Maine politico observed: “LePage had coattails. You have to give it to the guy.”

So your inner GOP consultant might not think a whole lot of Paul LePage. But LePage’s response to that would almost certainly be something like: “I don’t give a damn. You Washington types are ruining the country, buzz off.” And he has a point . . . 

— Matt Purple is an editor at Rare.us.

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