“I am going to retire and go to Florida,” he told reporters on one of the last days of his tumultuous eight-year tenure, as term limits prevented him from running again, suggesting he would never return.
The self-imposed exile did not last long.
Now, LePage is back. He wants his old job back. And he’s supposedly a changed man — better-mannered, trimmer and more focused than the Tea Party politician once dubbed “America’s Craziest Governor.” And after cruising to the GOP nomination on Tuesday, the 73-year-old is one step closer to another term as governor.
“What he’s trying to do is not necessarily change his policy, but take some of the rough edges off,” said Mark Brewer, who chairs the University of Maine political science department.
In a state long known for its moderate politics, traditional Republicans and independents “would just cringe” at many things LePage said during his first two terms — like claiming out-of-state drug dealers with names like “D-Money” often “impregnate a young white girl before they leave” — which attracted national attention, Brewer said. “He’s hoping a new, kindler, gentler Paul LePage maybe can win some of those voters over.”
But has he really changed?
People close to LePage say he’s “mellowed out.” They say his time relaxing in the sun in Florida with family and friends, outside the constrictions of the governor’s office, helped him to realize that his constant feuding with the press often distracted from his agenda. (LePage changed his residency to Florida after leaving the governor’s mansion, but has changed it back since returning to Maine).
“It’s a different era,” said Brent Littlefield, LePage’s top political adviser. “He is finding it refreshing that he actually gets to go out and talk to a tremendous number of Mainers. He’s really enjoying himself.”
Democrats aren’t buying it.
“Paul LePage’s promise that he’s changed is nothing but a campaign lie — one he’s made before,” said Maine Democratic Party Vice Chair Bev Uhlenhake, noting he said in a 2014 debate that even he could “be taught to cool down.”
“There is a reason LePage was one of the most unpopular governors in the country when he left office. Maine voters will never take him back,” Uhlenhake said.
Instead of a personal conversation, they see simple political calculus.
To beat a Democrat incumbent in November he’ll likely need to win over a wider range of voters than he ever has before. He was first elected with just 38% of the vote in 2010 thanks to a well-funded independent candidate who split the anti-LePage vote, but the third candidate on the ballot this year has spent only $2,000 so far and pledged not to take donations.
It’s unusual for someone to leave office only to run again four years later.
LePage’s faceoff with Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who is seen as a competent if unexciting moderate by her base, could presage a similar rematch between former President Donald Trump, another divisive former incumbent who moved to Florida, and his successor, President Joe Biden.
The purple state is deeply divided between its coastal South, dotted with multimillion-dollar homes and “Coexist” bumper stickers, and its vast rural interior, where “LePage 2022” signs started popping up almost as soon as he left office in struggling old mill towns and at the end of dirt driveways.
The irony is that while the rest of the Republican Party has veered right trying to catch up to Trump, proto-Trump LePage has seemingly done the opposite.
“The big change in me has been the last four years watching what’s going on in the country,” the former governor told Portland’s NBC affiliate as he re-introduced himself to the state in February. “I am absolutely convinced that if we continue to hate each other, if we don’t find a path to at least like each other and respect each other, our country is in for doom. Our Constitution will not survive. We need to find a path to have civil discourse so we can talk to both sides of the argument.”
Where the old LePage told the NAACP to “kiss my butt” after he skipped their Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration during his first weeks in office, the new LePage uses a rare tweet to “recognize the important life and legacy of Dr. King.”
Where the old LePage said he opposed “killing babies as a form of contraception,” the new LePage speaks on abortion in a carefully worded statement that says he will “listen to the people” in the Democratic-leaning state if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The fact that no one even ran against him in Tuesday’s primary seems to confirm LePage can afford to reposition himself without worrying about his base.
“Like Trump, when he won in 2010, he basically took over the Republican Party in Maine,” said Mike Tipping, a progressive activist who wrote a book about LePage and just won the Democratic nomination for a competitive state Senate seat. “He’s kind of the mass that other planets orbit around in the Republican Party here.”
LePage has kept a low profile so far this year and mostly avoided the press. But that can’t last forever and critics say the old LePage will inevitably re-emerge as soon as he starts appearing in public more as the campaign heats up.
Mills has raised twice as much money as LePage and led in every public poll so far — but no one is counting him out. National Democrats have already reserved advertising time to support Mills. Her polling lead is close to the margin of error and LePage has never been a strong fundraiser, but has won every race he’s run despite that.
Maine-based author Colin Woodard, who wrote American Nations and has chronicled LePage’s remarkable rags-riches life story, sees “broad parallels” between this year’s race in Maine and a potential 2024 national one.
“Like Biden, Mills is a centrist Democratic incumbent with an enthusiasm deficit among her party’s progressive wing,” said Woodard, who also works for the Portland Press Herald. “LePage was a volatile, vengeful, often fact-challenged chief executive who remade the Republican Party in his image and is absolutely beloved and hated by different thirds of the electorate.”