Donald Trump headed to Maine on Thursday to campaign
Maine Gov. Paul LePage is also a businessman-turned-candidate
Maine Gov. Paul LePage was Donald Trump before Trump was – or so he likes to say.
The two shared the stage when Trump headed to Portland, Maine, to campaign Thursday ahead of the Pine Tree State’s Saturday contest.
“He’s a little bit like I am, but he says what needs to be said,” LePage said before a raucus crowd. “He is not afraid of the political establishment, he’s not afraid of lobbyists, special interests and most of all, folks, he’s not afraid of the United States liberal media!”
The successful businessman-turned-governor notorious for making national headlines for his outspokenness has obvious similarities to the Republican presidential front-runner.
LePage endorsed Trump soon after his preferred candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, dropped out of the race and threw his support to the real estate mogul.
And while their biographies are anything but identical – LePage grew up poor and at times homeless in central Maine, while Trump was the heir to a multimillion-dollar real estate company in New York City – some of the parallels between their political careers are uncanny.
“In a certain way, Maine was really ahead of the curve on this new right-wing populism that’s emerging that everyone’s taking note of with Trump,” said Lance Dutson, a Republican political consultant who served as an adviser to Maine’s House speaker when LePage took office.
Like Trump, LePage was one of a crowded primary field in his first major political campaign and was not taken seriously by establishment Republicans.
“Everybody early on, when they heard the crazy things LePage was saying at caucuses and speeches, everybody laughed,” said a longtime Maine Republican operative, speaking on background so as not to jeopardize his employment. “Then the next thing you know, the guy wins the primary.”
LePage catapulted to the top of primary pack in 2010 – though like Trump, he spent relatively little on his campaign – on the backs of new voters drawn into the process by his resentment of government and the political class.
“Maine was a bit of a petri dish,” said David Farmer, a Democratic political consultant who served as communications director for Gov. John Baldacci, LePage’s Democratic predecessor.
“You’ve got rural communities that have lost their major employers and nobody has really been able to solve that problem. Then they latch onto this guy who just wants to blow it all up,” he said. “And I think you see that with LePage and you certainly see it with Trump.”
Those voters were working-class people who felt equally disaffected by their government, their unions and big companies, the GOP operative said.
“They were trained to work in an economy that has changed dramatically over the last decade and they feel lost and angry and that nobody cares and nobody is listening,” he said, adding that it’s the same profile of Trump voters today.
And in LePage, and now Trump, those voters have found their champions.
“There’s definitely a simmering rage in Maine and across the country … and LePage upended that. I think what Trump is doing on a national scale is similar except obviously it has broader implications,” Dutson said.
But there’s another side to that loyalty.
“The governor has demonstrated he has a penchant for talking off the cuff, not being concerned with the facts of his statements and saying things that simply are hurtful and inappropriate,” said Farmer, the Democrat. “Like Mr. Trump, the governor has said things that are racist, things I believe were intended to incite violence, and he has been extremely bombastic and aggressive with friends and foes.”
In Maine, it’s not uncommon for the governor to be at odds with members of his own party, be it over language he’s used or an unwillingness to compromise on legislation.
On the national scale, the Republican establishment is flailing to do whatever it can to prevent Trump from wresting their party’s nomination. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential candidate, is scheduled to give a speech Thursday that will take direct aim at Trump and implore voters to coalesce around a rival.
Discomfort with Trump’s unwillingness during an interview with CNN to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke is just the latest example of the mogul drawing rebuke from party leaders, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
Dutson says Maine Republicans learned the hard way it’s better to speak up sooner rather than later if a candidate does things that don’t align with your values.
“If you don’t have the guts to push back on your own party when you see people doing something wrong, then you’re going to end up owning it. And that’s where Republicans are at the moment,” he said. “We’re in a weird place in American politics right now and LePage was definitely on the cutting edge of that.”
And Farmer has some sobering words for Democrats who see Trump as an easy general election target.
“I just don’t take that for granted. I’ve seen it a little bit too close. You just don’t know what’s going to happen in an election,” he said.