NORTHEAST HARBOR, MAINE — Paul LePage, the former Maine governor and conservative firebrand who once declared he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump,” officially announced on Monday that he will again run for governor in November 2022. The race is expected to be watched nationally for any clues about former president Donald Trump’s ability to mount a comeback and run for president in 2024.
LePage won elections for governor in 2010 and 2014, but was prevented from running in 2018 because of term limits. Shortly after Janet Mills, a Democrat, was elected in 2018, LePage moved to Florida, but then began to be more vocal in his criticism of Mills and telegraphed over the past year that he was serious about challenging her in the 2022 election. Last year, LePage reestablished residency in Maine.
“Today I am officially starting my campaign for Governor of Maine,” LePage said in a statement to a relaunched campaign website. “Maine faces several challenges and we must work toward building a better future based on individual liberty, fiscal responsibility, and an economy which empowers everyone including our rural communities. We simply cannot continue to look to Washington, DC for bailouts, subsidies, or leadership.”
LePage said he plans to spend the rest of the summer listening to Mainers and building a campaign ahead of a kick-off event in the fall.
Political analysts in the state say that a battle between the governor and the former governor will make the race for the Blaine House one of the most high-profile Maine contests next year.
The last time a term-limited former governor returned to run for reelection was in 1990 when Democrat Joseph Brennan tried to oust his successor, Republican John McKernan, who was seeking reelection. McKernan narrowly won.
Governor Mills has not officially declared whether she will run for reelection, but her political operation sent a fund-raising e-mail last week seeking donations in an effort to demonstrate “strong support before the official launch.”
Following the news of LePage’s reentry into state politics, Maine Democratic Party chair Drew Gattine said, “A third term of Paul LePage would only take us backward.”
Aiding Mills is history: No Maine governor has lost re-election since 1966. Aiding LePage is his own history: He has never lost an election going back to the first time he ran for Waterville City Council before he went on to serve as mayor.
On issues, the race could likely hinge on how Mills handled the COVID-19 response in the state. Maine is the oldest state in the nation, yet its economy is heavily dependent on tourism — a balance that complicated how much of a lockdown the state should be under.
During much of the pandemic, for example, hotels and restaurants said the emergency orders put them out of business. Churches in the state sued Mills for her orders against larger gatherings. Yet at the same time, Maine never became a pandemic hot spot; 850 people in the state died, far fewer than in other New England states. LePage’s announcement comes just days after Mills’ COVID emergency orders were lifted and she signed a state budget that included a one-time $300 “hazard pay” check to Mainers earning less than $75,000 a year.
In next year’s election, however, Mills will likely talk less about her own accomplishments than turn the conversation back to LePage’s eight years as governor. He left office with a 40 percent approval rating. His tenure as governor was especially rocky. After he was criticized for not attending Martin Luther King Day events, he said the NAACP could “kiss my butt.” He also attempted to ban newspapers from covering his administration, openly talked about wanting to have a 19th century duel with a lawmaker where he would shoot him, and spent $22,000 in state funds for rooms at one of Trump’s hotels.
A poll taken in May found Mills leading LePage 45 percent to 38 percent.
Both LePage and Mills are widely expected to be the nominees of their parties. While there was significant division inside the Republican Party locally between the conservative LePage wing and the moderate Senator Susan Collins wing, that appears to be patched up. While LePage routinely criticized Collins when both were in office, he eventually endorsed her reelection last year. A Collins spokeswoman said the senator would back LePage should he want to run for governor again.
If there is any division it is among Democrats. Activists on the left are upset with a recent flurry of Mills’ vetoes of bills passed by the Democratic-led Legislature, especially those involving the environment. Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat, said of another veto that Mills “did not have the courage” to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry.
The wild card in this race is whether there will be a strong third candidate running either from a minor party or as an independent. A three-way race was widely credited as the reason LePage won his first run for governor in 2010, despite getting less than 38 percent of the vote. An independent candidate, Eliot Cutler, came in second with 36 percent of the vote.
There are already rumblings that there could be one, if not two, strong independent candidates running. On Friday, former state Senator Tom Saviello (a former Democrat, Republican, and independent) said he didn’t rule out a run for governor on a platform of opposing the Central Maine Power corridor. Currently under construction but facing legal battles, the proposal creates a power line delivering renewable energy from Canada into the New England power grid. It is the most high-profile fight in the state and both Mills and LePage favor it. A new website suggests that Saviello could join the race on Wednesday.
While Maine is the first state in the nation to implement Ranked Choice Voting, the method only applies to federal races and not state races like governor.
All of New England’s six states will hold elections for governor next year.