Politics & Other Mistakes: Not exactly a clash of titans

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Democrats seem to be under the impression Gov. Janet Mills would be a strong candidate for reelection in 2022.

Republicans are convinced former Gov. Paul LePage would be a powerful challenger, who could deny Mills a second term.

Both parties are wrong, but the GOP is a little wronger.

By the time the election rolls around in November of next year, most of the issues Republicans are counting on to defeat Mills will be fading into irrelevance. Restrictions on businesses and social gatherings due to the pandemic will have been lifted. The economy still won’t be in great shape, but the general direction will be upward. Tourism will have rebounded, although not yet to pre-COVID-19 levels. Unemployment will have declined, although the state still won’t have recovered all the jobs lost in the shutdown. No one will even remember what PPP stood for or why it should or shouldn’t have been taxed.

That won’t matter to LePage, who’ll follow his usual playbook of claiming Mills botched everything from mask mandates to Medicaid expansion to putting solar panels on the Blaine House.

He’s only right about that last one, and nobody really cares.

In his two races for governor, LePage never managed to attract a majority of the vote. There’s no reason to think his support has grown since he departed (temporarily) for Florida.

Quite the opposite. His polarizing rhetoric, frequent misstatements, and simplistic proposals for dealing with the state’s complex problems (Pandemic? Cut taxes! Terrorism? Cut taxes! Rabid moose? Cut taxes!) may not have eroded his base, but they make it difficult for him to attract much more than 40 percent of the vote.

In a two-way race, he’s toast.

Even if there is a scattering of fringe candidates for governor, none of them is likely to draw enough support to impact the final results. Ranked-choice voting isn’t used in gubernatorial elections because the state Constitution won’t allow it, so voters who might have been inclined to support a Green, Libertarian, or another kook will be hesitant to squander their ballots backing somebody who can’t possibly win.

That brings us back to Mills, who has thus far shown a notable lack of enthusiasm for doing any of the dirty work of running for reelection. Her strategy seems to be that she won’t need a traditional campaign if she looks busy enough governing.

There is a lot of risk involved in that approach, particularly if the quality of life of average Maine voters doesn’t reflect some improvement by the time Election Day rolls around. Much of that upgrade depends not on anything Mills can do but on national and international developments. If the world is going to hell by mid-2022, Mills’ old-fashioned, steady-hand-at-the-wheel approach may appear to a beleaguered citizenry as delusional.

And LePage already has that territory staked out.

Of course, there are other potential candidates in both parties who could step in if either of the big shots falters.

Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford has solid center-right credentials that won’t excite the hardcore LePage crowd but could appeal to sane people. Former GOP Congressman Bruce Poliquin has no qualms about sucking up to the Trump-humpers. Ex-state Senate President Mike Thibodeau is trying in vain to demonstrate that being staunchly conservative isn’t the same as being loony. Longer shots include former LePage press secretary and unsuccessful congressional candidate Adrienne Bennett; former legislator and business executive Jean Ginn Marvin, and – the longest shot of all – former Christian Civic League Executive Director Mike Heath.

On the Democratic side, current Senate President Troy Jackson has a populist approach that partially conceals his inherent loopiness. Mills’ resident futurist, Hannah Pingree, daughter of 1st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, also harbors political ambitions that probably exceed her electability.

Still, the most likely matchup for next year is LePage challenging Mills, setting up a contest that could be characterized as the mistakes of the past (gutting the public health service) versus the mistakes of the present (bungled vaccine rollout).

If you’re running and I left you out, it was on purpose. Complain by emailing [email protected].

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