Phil: Love him or hate him, Gov. Paul LePage is clearly the most influential and controversial figure in Maine politics today. In terms of the fall elections, what impact do you think he will have on the outcome?
Ethan: Are you asking whether he will be a powerful beast who ensures Republicans maintain their death grip on the Legislature or a burdensome albatross that throws the elections to the Democrats?
Phil: I suppose, in a way that only you can express, that is my question.
Ethan: Lord knows, I wake up every morning hoping he will campaign in every district firing up my base to turn out and vote! That said, I actually don’t think he will be much of a factor. Mainers don’t vote based on who candidates know (either way).
Phil: Agreed. Maine elections are much too personalized for people to vote for or against someone because they happen to be in the same party as someone else. Yet I suspect your party will try as they did in the special election for Senate District 20 in Lincoln County, where Democrat Chris Johnson beat Republican Dana Dow. You tried to make the election all about LePage and his blunt talk, but your candidate ultimately won because he got calluses on his knuckles from knocking on all those doors.
Ethan: A good lesson for my party. On the flip side, your people have to understand that hugging the governor won’t help either. State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin begged, borrowed and stole LePage’s name to make Republicans think they were Siamese twins in his bid for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Yet he lost handily. Not a good sign for the governor.
Phil: You can’t blame LePage for Poliquin’s loss. Poliquin created a lot of negatives all on his own.
Ethan: Fair enough, but he has not done a lot to broaden the appeal of your party. Every poll has shown that independents and Democrats are almost lock step in opposition to him. Do you think members of your party will have to do some distancing in swing districts?
Phil: I don’t, because the presidential and U.S. Senate races will suck up all the airtime. I also think LePage has found his stride with the media. Have you noticed that he is communicating more through press releases and the gracious First Lady Ann LePage?
Ethan: If you think “press releases” have somehow tempered the governor’s demons, you should have read his recent statement on ObamaCare: “American economy destroyed!” “Freedom eroded!” He sounds like a guy on Fox News. But the bigger question is: Can he keep it zipped from Labor Day to Nov. 6?
Phil: Many of us in the private sector — tax revenue generators — share his concerns. Don’t underestimate LePage. He is resolute in his convictions, and he needs Republicans to hold the Legislature if he is going to build on the momentum he created. Yes, I believe he will take a more subdued approach in the November election.
Ethan: Can you imagine how volatile he will be if Democrats actually control one or both branches? He can barely work with members of his own party in the Legislature, let alone the opposition!
Phil: The fact that he got most of his agenda implemented shows, when all is said and done, that he worked just fine with Republicans. And if your party thinks they will stop his momentum by flipping a couple of seats, you don’t understand how effective he has been in changing the agenda in Augusta.
Ethan: So, it sounds like you think he’s going to try and stay in the wings? Avoid being seen with candidates like Bush did in 2006?
Phil: What I’m saying is that he will not be making headlines that take focus off the challenges we are confronting. I think he will be happy to campaign with legislators if they wish. One-on-one, LePage is engaging and good humored. The more Mainers encounter him outside of the headlines, the more people give him a second look.
Ethan: I am confused. While I don’t believe in coattails, I also don’t believe you win elections by reminding people of what they don’t like, and boy do many people not like LePage. I do not expect many in your party to be calling upon his services unless it is to raise money or fire up the base.
Phil: Ethan, go back and read LePage’s inaugural address. In it you will recall this message: “A governor cannot do it alone. It is going to take hard work from everyone, but I am ready to provide the leadership and focus needed to move us forward. I do not care about editorials, opinion polls or the next election.” Whether candidates will be calling on him to campaign is up to them. I believe LePage is ready to help if asked.
Ethan: Well, of course he will help if asked. The question is whether anyone will ask and whether it would be smart for him to do so in a general election where the middle rules.
Phil: My belief is that as we get closer to the fall, opinion polls will show the governor with more than 50 percent approval. If that occurs, you can be assured that his schedule will be full of events in September.
Ethan: More than 50 percent! I know you are opposed to legalizing drugs, but you must be smoking crack. The latest poll I saw has LePage at 41 percent. And while you are correct that his schedule will be busy in September, that’s because he is going to China. You think it is coincidence that he has scheduled the trip for right at the start of campaign season…
Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman are former state senators. Their column appears online every Friday and in print on Saturdays. They are also political commentators on your local NBC affiliate and WGAN Radio.