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.
Most credit LePage’s surprise primary victory—and his strength going into the November election—to the legions of volunteers his campaign has mobilized on the ground. The tea party is smaller and more dispersed in Maine than in more populated states, but the movement has fiercely latched onto LePage’s campaign, along with devout conservatives who’ve gone through more traditional political channels to bolster LePage and the GOP’s right flank. Having been won over by LePage in Waldoboro, tea party activists like Harring began holding small fundraisers for the campaign—some of them in their own backyards. “Any time there was any party function, a straw poll, or run-of-the-mill campaign event, you might have a smattering of volunteers—but the LePage people always have 15, 25 people or more,” says Dan Billings, a Maine lawyer who’s worked for the state GOP.
There was also a grassroots push by LePage supporters to revive GOP party committees in small towns and rural areas that had lain politically dormant for years. By the state GOP’s convention in May—a key rallying point for the gubernatorial candidates—committee delegates enthusiastic about the state’s conservative resurgence helped pack the event, with many observing that LePage’s supporters outnumbered the rest. (LePage’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
But the biggest upheaval of the convention was when a small group of delegates from Knox County—led by Cowan of the Constitutionalists, as well as a former consultant for the LePage campaign—managed to pass a new party platform with a hodgepodge of radical provisions. Reading out the entire proposal—which included calls to “discard political correctness,” “investigate collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth,” “repeal and prohibit any participation in efforts to establish a one world government,” and return to “Austrian-style economics,” in the manner of Ron Paul-style libertarianism—the Knox Republicans drew a standing ovation.
The national media grasped onto the platform coup, declaring it a sign that the tea party had “hijacked” the Maine GOP, leading some Republicans to feel a bit queasy about what they had just signed onto. Billings, the GOP lawyer, blasted the document as “wack job pablum” and “nutcase stuff” to the local media. “Most people didn’t necessarily really know what they were voting for,” says Matt Gagnon, editor of PineTreePolitics.com and a GOP strategist originally from the state. “They were kind of tired of the establishment—they didn’t necessarily read ‘Page three, subparagraph four.'” Upon closer examination, “there was a bit of a hangover—’Oh God, what have we done?'” says Andrew Ian Dodge, Maine’s coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.
But others saw the convention as a major turning point for the LePage and his supporters. “It was the first indicator that [LePage] did have some numbers and some clout,” says Ted O’Meara, a former chair of the state GOP. “There are a lot of places where the party was weak and didn’t have organization…but you had some willing activists.”
Fond of waving a copy of the Constitution in the air to conclude his primary debates, LePage began to expand his quiet but devoted following. Operating on a shoestring budget, the campaign began to marshal volunteers from all quarters—not just tea party sympathizers, but also supporters from Waterville and Marden’s employees who served as shock troops on the ground. Shortly before the primary, his volunteer army hand-delivered a poster-sized pamphlet to some 30,000 potential voters. “They picked volunteers very carefully, who were close to the candidate…[who] built an infrastructure,” says Gagnon. “The entire operation was built on volunteers knocking on your neighbor’s door.”
Sensing LePage could appeal to those who had long abandoned the state GOP, his campaign targeted voters that his rivals had tended to overlook. Partly due to his push, there was record turnout for the primary election, with the highest turnout for Republicans since 1952. And the voters who had come back to the fold voted decisively for LePage, who won 38 percent, beating all of his 6 opponents by at least a two-to-one ratio. “We thought people coming back and enrolling would be our kind of people,” says Mark Pittman, Mills’ former campaign manager. “We were shocked when they came back and showed us that was wrong, so wrong.”
LePage is now counting on his anti-tax message and grassroots following to carry him through the general election. For months, he’s led the polls by double digits: a recent poll, in mid-September, found him pulling in 37 percent of the vote over his main rival, Democratic Libby Mitchell, who received 25 percent, and independent Cutler, who got 11 percent. The majority leader of the state Senate, Mitchell has struggled to gain a foothold in an anti-establishment year that has not only pinned the blame on Washington, but also on Augusta Democrats who’ve been in power for over a decade. His campaign is also hoping that the state’s Franco-American population, which generally skews Democratic, will come out to vote for one of their own.
The question now is whether LePage’s ragefests will end up driving away the more moderate voters who’ve yet to be won over by the campaign. Previous media catastrophes have had little impact: During a whistle-stop train tour in July, LePage lashed out against a Democratic operative and reporters who hounded him about teaching creationism in schools—exactly the kind of social issue that he’d been hoping to avoid. (He says it’d be OK, citing his Catholic upbringing, but has since hedged on the issue.) Though critics quickly labeled the trip a “trainwreck,” LePage managed to emerge mostly unscathed in the polls.
But there are some signs that the latest round of volleys—sparked by the revelation that his wife has illegally claimed a homestead tax exemption in two states—could end up cutting into his lead. The latest polling in the race, put out last week, shows LePage and Mitchell in a dead heat. Critics also point out that LePage’s tendency to cast stones at his enemies could lead to complete gridlock with the majority Democratic state legislature. While LePage has touted his ability to work with a Democratic city council as Waterville mayor, former council members warn that he relentlessly threatened vetoes even after concessions were made in his favor. Even some tea party activists have been put off his confrontational, ham-fisted behavior. “He expects the tea party to be his bitches and I’m not…they seem to think the more thuggish he is, the better he does,” says Dodge of the Tea Party Patriots. “They don’t understand there’s a difference between running and governing.”
Ultimately, LePage’s outbursts and media showdowns are likely to endear him even more to his most devoted followers. “That’s exactly why they’re voting for him—they want to see things stirred up,” says Mills. Even so, he notes, the hot-headed Republican would probably have more to gain by taking things down a notch. LePage is “on a winning glide path…with nothing to lose by tempering his personality and remarks, trying to come across as more of a statesman,” Mills adds. “My advice to him is to cool it.”