Let’s cut Paul LePage into little pieces.
Not literally. Even after the governor’s recent weight loss, that would be too messy. All those flakes from his thin skin, the excess of bile, not to mention the gas from his over-inflated ego would require a haz-mat team to clean up.
No, this butchering of LePage’s carcass is metaphorical. It involves slicing up his popular support into such small steaks, chops and roasts that those meager portions could no longer satisfy the hunger of the voracious electoral system.
Before all this symbolism carries us further down the digestive system, let’s gird our loins and state the obvious: The Republican candidates running to replace LePage are seeking to attract voters from the same limited base.
Ex-commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services Mary Mayhew, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason all believe that everybody who supported LePage will likewise cast a ballot for them.
That strategy is not only demonstrably wrong, it also raises the possibility of an as-yet-unannounced moderate winning the GOP nomination.
More on that later. First, let’s consider the approaches the three official candidates are taking. Both Mayhew and Fredette have been quite clear that they consider themselves LePage’s anointed successor, even though the governor hasn’t actually endorsed either one. However, they both have reasonable arguments to support their claims to the guv’s legacy.
Mayhew, at LePage’s behest, resolutely dismembered the welfare system, eliminating some waste and red tape, but also ignoring the needs of people with disabilities, impoverished single parents and others who somehow didn’t meet her standards for being “truly needy.” If that gives her the image of being heartless, it’s not a reputation that’s likely to harm her with hardcore LePage supporters.
Fredette carried the governor’s water in the Legislature. His unwavering allegiance to the LePage agenda earned him the nickname “Sock Puppet,” but his political skill in keeping the Republican House caucus united is primarily responsible for the repeal of the voter-approved 3 percent surcharge on rich taxpayers and for the upholding of many of LePage’s vetoes. Whether anyone outside the Statehouse is aware of his loyalty to the conservative cause remains to be seen, but Fredette certainly deserves partial credit for what little the governor accomplished.
Mason can lay less of a claim to the LePage mantle. In spite of his deep roots in the religious right, he, like several other members of the Senate GOP caucus, has occasionally shown a willingness to compromise, particularly at times when the governor was at his most irrational (Mondays, Wednesdays, odd-numbered days and most of the spring and summer). He’s the least likely of the candidates to earn a kind word from LePage, but Mason’s rock-solid credibility with evangelicals means he’ll own the votes of those supporters of the governor who care most about issues such as abortion and transgendered people using bathrooms.
So, the LePage coalition is likely to be seriously divided in next June’s primary. Does this open the door for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins or another moderate (state Sen. Roger Katz or lobbyist Josh Tardy) to steal the nomination, in spite of the dwindling size of the Republican center?
Probably not. Here’s why:
Eventually, the Legislature is going to have to resolve the constitutional problems with the ranked-choice voting law approved in referendum last year. According to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, such a system can’t be used for the general election for governor, but could be allowable in primaries. If that happens, it’s highly unlikely many of Mayhew’s, Fredette’s or Mason’s supporters would choose Collins as their second, third or even fourth choice. She might win a plurality of votes on the first ballot, but subsequent rounds would almost certainly deny her a majority.
If Collins gets in the gubernatorial race, she’ll have an easier path if she does so as an independent. No primary. No ranked-choice. No problem.
That leaves the GOP field to Mayhew, Fredette, Mason and possibly Katz or Tardy (who stand even less chance than Collins of surviving the ranked-choice wringer). Mayhew looks like the early front-runner, by virtue of having started first and raising significant money. Mason owns the church-goers and can’t be counted out. Fredette has already seen several of his House allies endorse Mayhew and will need a more memorable slogan than “Pretty Much More of the Same.”
Expect these three to spend the next year grinding each other into hamburger.
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