Republican Gov. Paul LePage says he’s “seriously, seriously giving [running against independent U.S. Sen. Angus King] some very serious thought.”
When a politician says some variation of “serious” that many times in one sentence, he’s probably suffering from a vocabulary deficit – of the serious sort.
But he could also be sort of serious. Which is not the same as being sort of rational. According to a poll taken late last year by Critical Insights, King has an approval rating of 65 percent, one of the highest in Congress. LePage’s approval rating is 32 percent, one of the lowest of any state’s chief executive. More than half of respondents said they disapproved of the job he was doing. The conventional wisdom says there’s no way LePage could beat King.
Except there is.
The last time King had a serious (there’s that word again) election opponent was when he first ran for governor in 1994. Since his only tough race, he’s brushed aside such political afterthoughts as Tom Connolly, Pat LaMarche, James Longley Jr. and William Clarke Jr. (all in the 1998 gubernatorial election), not to mention Charlie Summers, Danny Dalton, Andrew Ian Dodge and Cynthia Dill (2012 Senate campaign). Most of them would have lost to a reasonably priced burrito.
Even so, King won his Senate seat with a mere 54 percent of the vote. Considering the anemic field, that’s not all that impressive.
Of course, LePage failed to capture a majority of the vote in either of his gubernatorial bids, benefiting from fractured opposition and less-than-inspiring opponents (Libby Mitchell, Mike Michaud, Shawn Moody, Eliot Cutler). But there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t encounter the same advantageous situation if he ran for the Senate.
The Democratic Party hasn’t elected a senator in Maine since George Mitchell retired in 1995, just about the time most people became aware of something called the internet. The Dems might not want to step aside to let King and LePage slug it out, instead putting forward a nominee of Dill-like incompetence (hello, Emily Cain), a sacrificial burrito barely capable of reaching double digits. But those few liberal votes would come at the expense of the moderate King, creating an opportunity for LePage to sneak into national office with his traditional conservative plurality.
Even if the Democrats restrain themselves and support King, that wouldn’t necessarily assure victory. That’s because the senator’s campaign style is ill-suited to a political landscape much altered since last he faced an actual challenge. Gone are the days when he could simply ignore attacks on his record or turn aside wild accusations with a laidback lecture on the complexities of governing. King doesn’t seem to realize the game is being played with new rules. Already he’s allowed LePage to hit him with farcical claims that the senator has so far not bothered to refute.
“He ripped us off by $104 million during his eight years as governor,” LePage told an Orono audience earlier this month. “He ripped us off royally, and I can’t wait until 2018, because I’m thinking that’s the guy I’m going after.”
LePage hasn’t explained where he got that figure. It’s true that King made millions (although not that many millions) when he sold his energy conservation company, well before he ran for governor, but that transaction didn’t involve any public money. He also sold his share of a wind-power company he started to one of his partners for a much smaller sum, but that was after he left the Blaine House and before running for the Senate. Again, there was no taxpayer funding as part of the deal, although the company did receive some federal tax credits.
Rather than making it clear LePage is – once again – spewing fiction, King has mostly ignored the charge. His spokesman airily dismissed the claim as an obvious falsehood, apparently reluctant to be seen as defensive. Nevertheless, the governor has now positioned the senator to appear as just that. Expect the mysterious $104 million ripoff to become a staple of LePage outbursts for the next two years.
The guv is already in full campaign mode. Unless King makes a similar shift, it’s not that farfetched to imagine LePage taking his seat on the Senate floor in 2018.
- Published in Politics & Other Mistakes