It’s mid-August and the presidential race is dragging. Maine’s contest for the U.S. Senate is hardly scintillating. Independent Angus King holds a probably- insurmountable lead against a political neophyte for the Democrats and a Republican veteran who’s already lost three congressional bids.
But there’s one political story that keeps developing new plot lines – Gov. Paul LePage’s endless ability to create controversy, and to follow his miscues with even stranger attempts to justify them.
In just the last month, LePage likened the IRS to the Gestapo and created another tempest over public education, saying Maine students are “looked down on” when venturing out of state.
Despite its importance, education rarely receives much attention, but LePage kept the story going, claiming the College of William & Mary, a public school in Virginia, administered special entrance exams for Mainers. (Never happened.)
One wonders even about the governor’s office solidarity after Communications Director Adrienne Bennett told reporters that neither the Gestapo nor William & Mary remarks were scripted. LePage did it on his own.
This naturally has people wondering about the next election, when LePage seeks a second term in 2014. LePage has united Democrats like nothing before, with a trial run in legislative elections this November.
A party not known for daring, or even competence, before its long dominance ended in 2010, is now focused, laser-like, in opposing a governor whose judgment gives pause to everyone except the tea party.
It was always a foregone conclusion that Republicans would lose the House, with a thin majority and more than 40 freshmen. But the Senate, after two special election victories, also looks attainable. In all likelihood, LePage will no longer have a compliant Legislature to buttress his case for re-election.
Yet the question remains – can any Democrat beat LePage? The party’s terror of vote-splitting no doubt prompted many Democrats’ acquiescence to King’s Senate candidacy. And independent Eliot Cutler likely will be back.
But candidates hardly ever do better the second time, and it’s questionable whether Cutler can best LePage. Both appeal to “running the state like a business,” a theory that hasn’t been working well.
No recent state officials stand out. Democratic legislative leaders are too inexperienced and constitutional officers – attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state – too obscure. Yet there’s one Democrat who could mount a challenge, and LePage knows it.
He called out Rep. Chellie Pingree after the Supreme Court unexpectedly upheld the Affordable Care Act, and she questioned LePage’s plan to proceed with Medicaid cuts not sanctioned by federal law.
Governors rarely lambaste members of Congress, but that didn’t stop LePage from telling Pingree to butt out – even though Medicaid is a federal program, and a big part of the ACA. Even so, the exchange would have faded had it not signaled LePage’s obvious concern over a potential rival.
It’s true Pingree was Hamlet-like when pondering the open Senate seat. And it’s another truism that once politicians go to Washington, they don’t return.
But it’s only half true. Senators don’t come back, but representatives do. Two recent governors, John McKernan and John Baldacci, won while serving in Congress, and Joseph Brennan almost did.
Pingree would tread a well-worn path. As the Senate race filled out, it seemed she had no further ambitions. After the Supreme Court decision, it looks different. Pingree has long supported a national health plan, and whoever is governor after 2014 will have a vital role in reshaping health care.
In a back-handed way, LePage decisions – on seemingly mundane matters such as issuing voter-approved bonds (LePage says he won’t) – remind us how important the job really is.
As against one representative among 435, Maine’s governor has a bigger impact on people’s lives, for better or worse. And because the governor is matched, or mismatched, with a part-time, term-limited Legislature, the choice becomes even more important.
The last Democratic nominee, Libby Mitchell, ran a backwards-looking campaign. The 2014 contest offers the opportunity to finally bring health care to everyone, not making it dependent on who your employer is, or how old, poor, or sick you are. Near-universal coverage is working in Massachusetts, and is equally popular in Vermont, now making the transition. Mainers have the same aspirations as their neighbors. They know that booting people off health care to finance tax cuts for the 1% is poor public policy.
Yes, it’s summer and there’s another election to get through. But on the other side, the winning issue, and candidate, may not be anything now on our screens.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 25 years. He may be reached email@example.com.