Can Governor LePage Win Re-election?

What an absurd thing to ask seven months into a new administration.

Yet, after a rough beginning, and a more recently successful (read: quiet) period, it seems to be the question I get asked the most about Maine politics.  (My response, each and every time, has been “I’m actually a lot more interested to see if the Republicans can keep majorities in the legislature.”)

The consensus from most people I talk to of all parties – near universally – is “nope“.  Almost to a person, they cite the various gaffes and controversies of Governor LePage‘s first few months, polling numbers that appear (misleadingly) to show weakening support and low approval, and just general pessimism that he is up for the job.  And with virtually everyone assuming Eliot Cutler is waiting in the wings to run again in 2014 on a platform of “should have voted for me the last time”, everyone assumes he is doomed.  This sentiment is much stronger among Democrats, of course, but I hear just as much doubt and pessimism among Republicans.

But these sentiments are not only premature, but very misplaced.  Of course the Governor can be re-elected.  And I can envision a number of scenarios that could lead to that happening, none of which are far fetched or unrealistic.  Let’s explore:

Maine Voters Always Re-elect Incumbent Governors

Quick, when was the last incumbent Governor of either party was rejected by voters as they sought re-election?

::looks at watch::

Give up?

The answer is Governor John Reed in 1966.  And, Reed was actually running for kind of, sort of, in a way, a third term.  Reed had taken over the Blaine House after the death of Governor Clinton Clausen, finished out his term after winning a special election, then was re-elected to a full term of his own (the first full four year term served in Maine’s history).  When he was defeated he had already been in office for six years and was elected twice.  Reed was defeated in his quest for a (sort of) third term, but even then it wasn’t exactly like he was one term and done in the eyes of Maine voters.

The last time a true one term Governor was defeated was 1954, when Governor Burton Cross was defeated by Ed Muskie.

Now granted, it has almost happened a number of times.  In 1970 incumbent Democratic Governor Kenneth Curtis barely squeaked by Republican challenger James Erwin in one of the tightest elections in Maine history (all said and done the margin of victory was only 890 votes).  In 1990, Governor John McKernan narrowly edged out former Governor Joe Brennan by a couple percentage points.

The point, which I assume you understand at this point in the article, is that Maine voters, for a variety of reasons, very rarely give the boot to incumbent Governors.  Even when they are strongly disliked by the voters such as Governor John Baldacci in 2006, or highly polarizing and divisive like Governor McKernan in 1990.

Indeed, in 2006 Governor Baldacci was re-elected by winning only 38.11% of the vote, which is even less of the total share than Governor LePage won last year (that the 61%er crew so enjoy dwelling on).

The root causes are complex – everything from the genial nature of Maine’s political environment to the constant division of opposition to the incumbent (more on that later).

Point is, while it is certainly possible to defeat an incumbent, it almost never seems to happen in Maine.

If The Economy Does Well, He Wins

Governor LePage is fond of retelling a story to his doubters.  In the early days of his tenure as Mayor of Waterville, things weren’t exactly going so well.  People were doubting him, and he was receiving a great deal of criticism.  After the initial trouble, “things started to work” and people saw results.  When they saw results, the doubts turned to optimism and the criticism turned to support, and of course he was re-elected Mayor.

Maine ‘aint Waterville, to be sure, but the point of the story still applies.

Partisans will no doubt argue about why it happened, but if Maine’s economy recovers and grows, unemployment drops, and jobs are added, it is going to be very difficult to picture Maine voters rejecting the incumbent.  Republicans will say it is the result of the Governor’s policies, and Democrats will say it is the result of a natural recovery and perhaps Democratic leadership nationally.  Whatever the reasons really will be (if it happens), it won’t matter much.

If the state is doing well, and the Governor can make a realistic case that he reformed government, cut spending, managed the budget, and grew jobs and opportunity, it will be hard to see anyone beating him.  With a growing economy, the antics that made so many voters question LePage’s leadership will just be a quirky afterthought, rather than a defining characteristic.

The reverse, of course, is true as well.  If the economy doesn’t recover, the state continues to have financial difficulties, and jobs remain scarce, it will be extremely hard to see LePage’s path to a second term.

It will all depend on what happens in the next three and a half years.  The last time the Maine economy was booming, Angus King coasted to re-election.  A different personality to be sure, but don’t let that fool you.  It was, in fact, about the economy, stupid.

The Fault Lines On The Left

I saved the best, and most likely reason why LePage could easily win re-election for last.

Eliot Cutler is going to run again, unless the race looks unwinable (see above reasons).  He latched on to the “No Labels” movement (such as it is), and later formed a self-described “moderate political action committee”, called OneMaine.  He did “thank you” tours around the state of Maine, to reconnect with supporters and stay in the public conversation.

He even managed to create demand for himself in the political sphere by drumming up phantom buzz about a never-was-going-to-ever-happen challenge to Olympia Snowe – one of the only Republicans he ever donated money to – and then denied interest.  So masterful was this stroke that he came off looking like a man people were crawling over themselves to beg into the race, but couldn’t be coaxed into it because he had (you can’t make this up), “no desire to live in Washington.”

Every move he has made since the election has been trying very hard to neutralize the biggest concerns about him during the 2010 race, namely being tagged as a Democrat pretending to be a moderate, and a big shot D.C. (and Beijing) lawyer that had limited ties with his home state.

And he’s been doing a very good job of it.  He’s running.  Only thing that can make him pass on the race is a very strong economy and a strong LePage.

But, Cutler’s moves have also pinned him in a corner.  He can not seek the Democratic nomination, because he would immediately look like an opportunist or a typically fluid politician.  You don’t spend this time building moderate credibility and then tag yourself as a partisan Democrat again.  So if (when) Cutler runs again, he is almost certainly doing so once again as an Independent.

So what do the Democrats do?

Libby Mitchell, as I predicted months before she even got the nomination of her party in 2010, was the most horrendous candidate the Democrats could have possibly run that year.  She was establishment in an anti-establishment year, she was a career politician in a outsider’s year, and she was lethargic and bland in a year that demanded dynamic energy.  Unless they decide to take a pass on the next election and stand behind Cutler (which is very unlikely, given how deeply the Democrats resent and blame him), the Democrats will almost certainly nominate a much stronger candidate who can probably command at least 30-35% of the vote.  This is made all the more likely given the crop of better potential candidates for statewide office waiting to run (namely Hannah Pingree, Rosa Scarcelli redux, and several others).

There is virtually nothing Governor LePage can do that would cause Republicans to abandon him in 2014.  They will show up for him again, and he will of course have other support as well.  The lowest percentage that an incumbent Governor has received in their re-election bid in the modern age is the 38.11% received by an incredibly unpopular Governor Baldacci.  I can not envision a situation in which LePage would fall below 35% himself.  I find it far more likely he hovers around 40% in a somewhat neutral electoral environment (such as an improved economy, but not a booming one).

With even a weak incumbent, and a strong Democrat running, Cutler will have to cobble together a coalition of moderates from each party, as well as Independent voters that don’t swing toward either party.

This has the makings of a rather crazy three way race (again).  If Cutler has as much difficulty convincing Mainers that he is truly a moderate and not a Democrat in sheep’s clothing as he did last year, we are looking at a big split on the left, which could allow LePage to sail to a second term.

So, what am I saying here?

One thing, and one thing only.  We simply don’t know anything right now, so writing off a successful re-election for LePage at this point in his term is just as foolish as declaring the opposite.  We don’t know what the state of the economy, the budget, or the jobs situation will be in 2014.  We don’t know who the Democrats will nominate, or exactly what Cutler is going to do.

What I do want to get across, however, is that there are plenty of scenarios that lead to eight years of Paul LePage as Maine’s Governor.  It is very possible it won’t happen, especially if the economy remains anemic and the Democrats nominate somebody weak and allow Cutler to become the only LePage alternative, but at this point I wouldn’t put money down on either outcome.

Yes, folks, this was the first post on the 2014 gubernatorial election.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.