Off to the races with Maine’s gubernatorial contest

So we have our first officially credible candidate, State Treasurer Terry Hayes, of the 2018 gubernatorial cycle. Hayes is currently unenrolled and will be running as an independent.

I say “officially credible,” of course, because she is not the very first human being to file for the race. She just happens to be the first one with a chance north of zero of actually being elected.

Hayes is a fascinating person. Like many recent independent candidates in Maine, she is a disaffected former Democrat. The falling out with her former party relates to a lost bid for the House speakership (to Mark Eves) and her disagreement with the party’s more combative, progressive direction in recent years.

Hayes may be the first candidate, but she certainly won’t be the last. Indeed, as I was writing this column, Democrat Adam Cote became the first officially credible candidate of his party to throw his hat in the ring.

But most of the big fish are still on the sidelines.

Last Monday, while appearing on Portland radio station WGAN’s Morning News program, a show I co-host, Sen. Susan Collins made it clear that she was thinking about running.

“I am looking at where I can do the most good for the people of Maine,” she said. “Coming to be governor, if I were fortunate enough to be elected…you can work on issues that I care a lot about, like economic development, jobs, education.”

She continued, repeatedly saying that she would have to weigh the impact she could have in Washington versus what she could do in Augusta. “I’m being totally honest with you,” she said to us, “I truly don’t know. I really don’t. It’s a hard decision.”

Collins would later tell CNN that she would make a decision by the fall. That decision is likely going to be the determining factor in a lot of other people’s decisions.

If Collins takes a pass, there is likely to be an avalanche of people throwing their hat in the ring on the Republican side.

The Blaine House in Augusta pictured in 2013. Carter McCall | BDN

The first big name people will wonder about outside Collins is Bruce Poliquin. The second-term congressman is very popular in the Second District and has two battle-hardened congressional races behind him. Will the siren song of the Blaine House convince him to throw his hat in? Betting lines inside Augusta seem to be skeptical he will, but if he does he would be a powerful contender.

Then there is Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who has been the most oft-repeated candidate, with or without Collins in the race. Given her high profile in the LePage administration, she is often thought of as one of the more natural heirs to the LePage political enterprise. Still, she is her own person with a very different story to tell and political base to work with, and there are many others she may have to elbow out of the way.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason has also been rather open about his interest in potentially running for the job. As a young, articulate, accomplished conservative with a very effective grassroots army behind him, he would certainly have a good argument.

Former Senate President and two-term Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett has also been more or less open about the possibility. He can point to a lot of success for the Republican Party under his watch and a collaborative approach in government, and make a good case.

Other names frequently included in the “maybe” camp include former House Republican Leader Josh Tardy, former state Sen. Phil Harriman, and current state Sen. Roger Katz. Each of these people would be a potential threat to win, to varying degrees. There are almost certainly others.

But I expect many will wait to see what Collins does. If she runs, most won’t bother — though I suspect she will still have to deal with at least one credible conservative challenger who has the potential to beat her no matter what — and if she takes a pass, everyone will jump in.

On the Democratic side, in addition to Cote, you’ll likely see Eves, former Senate President Justin Alfond, car magnate Adam Lee, Attorney General Janet Mills as well as perhaps Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and North Woods advocate Lucas St. Clair. You might even see Chellie Pingree jump in, though my guess would be not at this point.

And of course, Hayes and potentially Shawn Moody running as independents.

All told, we could have upwards of 20 people vying to replace Paul LePage in what will be one of the most hotly contested open gubernatorial seats in Maine history. Get ready.

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.