Put Paul LePage in front of a reporter for more than a few minutes, and there's a good chance that he'll totally freak out. At least that's been the experience of the Maine journalists who've been covering the unlikely GOP's gubernatorial candidate since his shocking primary upset in June. Two weeks ago, LePage lashed out at a reporter who asked whether his children unfairly received in-state tuition at Florida State University. "Let's stop the bullshit, and let's answer the questions the way they should be answered!" he snapped. The small-town mayor stormed out of another press conference—one that he himself had convened—after a reporter asked him about an illegal real-estate tax break that his wife received.
LePage recently told a TV news anchor that he was "about ready to punch" another local reporter who was dogging him. And he's vowed to continue his pugilistic ways if elected governor. "[A]s your governor, you're going to be seeing a lot of me on the front page saying: 'Governor LePage Tells Obama to Go to Hell,'" he told a group of local fisherman in late September, in an exchange that was captured on video. Such remarks have led to comparisons with the New York GOP's own hot-headed gubernatorial candidate, Carl Paladino, who threatened to "take out" a reporter during a confrontation last week.
LePage's opponents have jumped all over the outbursts to assail him as a loose canon whose unhinged temperament makes him unfit for office. "His comments are offensive. It just shows that LePage is not ready to lead," Arden Manning, a campaign aide for the Maine Democrats, told the Associated Press. Eliot Cutler, who's running againt LePage on the Independent ticket, sniffed: "There is a crude bullying to his approach to dealing with others." But it's unclear whether the attacks will stick, as it's precisely LePage's rough-hewn character and outsider status that have been responsible for his unexpected political ascendancy.
Raised in a poor Franco-American family, LePage has built his entire campaign on his rags-to-riches biography: He ran away from home at age 11 to escape his abusive father, worked as a shoeshine boy and dishwasher to support himself, and eventually ascended in the business world to become the general manager of Marden's, a much-beloved Maine discount chain. "People identify with him in many different ways, no matter how often he screws up in the press or says something off key," says Peter Mills, a moderate Republican who lost to LePage in the seven-person primary. "People say, 'That's what I might say if I were running for governor'—[they] want to vote for one of their own." He contrasted LePage's hardscrabble background with his own, as "a smart little kid who ran off to Harvard."
LePage's primary victory over the summer stunned the political establishment on both sides of the aisle, who had dismissed the dark horse candidate as too conservative and marginal to win in a state like Maine. The mayor of Waterville—a small, Democratic-leaning college town—LePage had quietly developed a grassroots following that had escaped the notice of many of his opponents. Though it's long been considered a bastion of political independence and ideological restraint, Maine hasn't been immune to the conservative anti-government revolt that's swept the nation. Having tapped into the ground-level backlash early on, LePage has led in almost every general election poll to date. And Maine's angriest politician could end up channeling his rage to become the state's first Republican governor in 15 years.
Even before he had declared his candidacy last year, LePage was picking up support from grassroots activists and disillusioned Republicans for vowing to abide by the sacrosanct principles of the tea party-loving Right. Blasting global warming as a "scam," LePage has promised to lay waste to the state's environmental regulations, impose draconian welfare restrictions, and ditch the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which he claims Maine isn't bound to follow.
A heavy-set man who seems to laugh just as easily as he becomes enraged, LePage also comes across as "very jovial" and "comfortable in his own skin" when he's reaching out to people in person, says Bill Nemitz, a columnist for Maine's Portland Press Herald. In Waldoboro, a tiny town of less than 5,000 on Maine's central coast, LePage met last summer with the Constitutionalists of Maine, a local group that was instantly taken with his hardline fiscal conservatism and down-home attitude. "He was humble—he didn't even mention that he was the mayor of Waterville when he introduced himself," says Pete Harring, co-founder of the statewide tea party group Maine ReFounders, recalling the early meeting.
Listening to LePage rail against welfare fraud and tax increases, waxing poetic about the Constitution, the group of some 20 conservative activists became convinced that he was a true believer. "He came dressed up in a suit, but he's a rugged individual—he doesn't come across [like] a slick-suited politician," says Ted Cowan, an unemployed Marine engineer who helped convened the meeting. The organization met with some of the other GOP hopefuls, but most seemed to be merely telling them what they wanted to hear, Cowan says. From that one meeting, he says, they knew that LePage was the one.
For the grassroots right, LePage has represented the chance to send a shock through the state's political system, reviving the GOP from its dormancy—and giving it a hard shove to the right. On a national level, Maine has often been cast as the last bastion of moderate Republicanism in the Northeast. The state's two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have been among the few Republicans willing to support Obama's stimulus and Wall Street reform bills even as the rest of their party dug in its heels. Within Maine, however, the two senators tend to draw significantly more supporters from Democrats and Independents than the GOP, which has the smallest base of support in the state.
Well before the tea party movement emerged, there were stirrings of a conservative revolt in the state. In the 2006, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee was also, like LePage, the most conservative candidate in the field. Chandler Woodcock drew more support from the state's increasingly restive evangelicals than the anti-tax crowd, but he ultimately lacked the ground game and broad-based appeal to win over voters. "He was playing to that disaffected conservative wing of GOP, he didn't have the tea party yet," says Nemitz. With Snowe and Collins committing political heresy in Washington—and state budget woes leaving the government reeling—the conditions in 2010 were perfect for a conservative outsider to step in.