AUGUSTA — Moderate Republicans backed away from Gov. Paul LePage this week in the wake of his largest legislative defeat and a string of public outbursts in which the governor crudely insulted a Democratic senator and toyed with a run for Congress rather than re-election to the Blaine House.
The governor suffered his most significant loss Wednesday when lawmakers overrode his veto of the two-year state budget. It was one of a handful of rebuffs in a legislative session during which he’s largely controlled the flow of business by using his veto pen to reject more than 50 bills, a record number.
The budget override vote capped a contentious week for LePage. A rift between him and Republican legislative leaders became evident as he dug in his heels in opposition to the state budget and his Vaseline comment about Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson became fodder for late-night TV.
It appeared as if LePage was losing his ability to get his way. He said Wednesday, for the second time in days, that he may not seek re-election to the governor’s office and that he had no policy priorities left to tackle.
But it’s too early to write him off, political observers say.
“He has invested in a particular kind of governing style, one that is aggressive and really speaks to a particular political base,” said Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine. “It may turn out to be a wise strategy, but it is a risky one. What we’re seeing this week, I think, is the downside of that strategy.”
While his style has limited public appeal, LePage still has managed to accumulate a noteworthy list of accomplishments over the past few months even with his party holding minorities in the House and Senate.
Two weeks ago, LePage signed into his law his top priority of the legislative session: a bill to repay the state’s $484 million hospital debt using proceeds from a renegotiated state wholesale liquor contract. While Democrats presented alternatives along the way, the final plan includes most of what LePage proposed in the first place.
LePage also has managed to squash a major Democratic priority, a bill to expand the state’s Medicaid program. And on Wednesday night, lawmakers handed him another victory when they acquiesced to his demand that the Maine Public Utilities Commission reopen its review process for offshore wind energy projects and consider a pilot project developed at the University of Maine for support from electric ratepayers.
Even in the budget LePage vetoed, Republicans managed to keep intact a major LePage priority: income tax cuts passed two years ago by a Republican-controlled Legislature. And to date, the Legislature has managed to override only three of LePage’s 51 vetoes — Republicans often have abandoned their initial votes on legislation to side with LePage — and one of those overrides came with LePage’s consent.
“We’d have to have many more data points in order to determine whether in fact he’s losing effectiveness,” said Douglas Hodgkin, a retired political science professor at Bates College. “The budget was a very special kind of thing where it could be at least the perception of dire consequences if it were not passed.”
And with the Legislature preparing to adjourn in the near future, there won’t be many more opportunities for LePage to prove he’s still in control or for Democrats to prove they’ve seized the reins.
But while LePage has amassed policy victories, some high-profile Republicans are deliberately distancing themselves from their governor.
“I am embarrassed,” Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, assistant Senate Republican leader, wrote Wednesday in an essay published by the Bangor Daily News and Portland Press Herald.
“Why is politics in Augusta beginning to feel like politics in dysfunctional Washington?” he wrote. “To me and many others, it is once again the unfortunate tone being set by our chief executive. His use of vulgarity and schoolyard taunts to demean his Democratic opponents. His failure to offer real apology. And then his insulting of Republican legislators who choose to disagree with him.”
And Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, the House Republican leader, had critical words for LePage on the House floor before Wednesday’s override vote.
“The Republican Party was a successful party when we had a big, welcoming tent,” he said. “The level of vitriol I have witnessed and the circular firing squads I have seen among Republicans cannot stand.”
Neither Katz nor Fredette entertained LePage’s suggestion that the state pass a stopgap, 60-day budget to avoid a government shutdown and give legislative leaders time to work out a budget that didn’t raise taxes. Both voted to reject LePage’s budget veto, and LePage singled out Fredette for criticism Wednesday after the budget override vote.
“You can want a very assertive representative for your issues,” Schmidt said, “but anyone who seems like they can just sort of lose control can be a liability.”
At this point, LePage appears to be a liability to Republicans’ electoral prospects, Schmidt said, and Democrats seem to have captured momentum with the budget override vote and the likely entrance of Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud into the 2014 gubernatorial race.
But that easily could change between now and November 2014.
“If the governor can demonstrate that his style is effective on particular issues, disaffected Republicans could very well come back into his orbit, and he’s got time to do that,” said Schmidt. “It’s less an issue of him trying to create a new political persona at this point than trying to muffle this one.”