Lost in the flurry of news coverage surrounding the come-from-behind victories by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada and South Carolina’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley in Tuesday’s primaries, was the stunning, tea party-fueled nomination of Waterville Mayor Paul LePage in Maine’s crowded Republican primary for governor.
Having been outspent by a more than ten-to-one margin by rival Les Otten — a ski mogul who reportedly spent $2.5 million in the Republican primary — LePage appeared to have carried every county in the state while garnering 37 percent of the vote. Otten, a partner in the Boston Red Sox who arguably enjoyed much higher name recognition than LePage, finished a distant second in the seven-candidate field with 17 percent.
The 61-year-old mayor of Waterville, a city of about 16,000 located on the west bank of the Kennebec River about 75 miles from Portland, the state‘s largest city, was regarded as one of the most conservative candidates in the race.
It almost seemed too good to be true as the early returns trickled in on Tuesday evening. “We were just dumbfounded,” LePage told a Portland television station.
He still can’t believe that he won — and by such an impressive margin, to boot. “I’ve been pinching myself all week,” he told the Kennbec Journal. “I figure it’s a dream and I haven’t woken up.”
Though conservative Democrat Clinton Clauson, a transplanted Iowan, was the last mayor of Waterville to be elected governor, LePage’s candidacy more closely resembles that of the late Edmund S. Muskie, the city’s solicitor, in 1954. Muskie, whose craggy, Lincolnesque features resembled the rocky Maine coast, led the state’s frostbitten Democratic Party — a party that hadn’t won a gubernatorial contest in twenty years — into battle that year, unexpectedly defeating Republican Gov. Burton M. Cross by 22,000 votes.
The 6’4” Muskie, who had his heart set on running for the U.S. House that year, reluctantly agreed to head his party’s ticket against the incumbent governor. Despite the long odds against him, Muskie campaigned vigorously, traveling 20,000 miles back and forth across the state.
Few gave Muskie a chance. Lacking funds for a motel room, he usually the spent the night in the homes of supporters as he crisscrossed the state.
His victory against a sitting Republican governor stunned everybody. “In those days,” recalled former state Treasurer Eben Elwell, who had actively stumped for the lanky Democratic candidate that autumn, “winning the Republican nomination was tantamount to election.”
Muskie’s example intrigues the Waterville mayor.
One of eighteen children of an impoverished and dysfunctional Lewiston family whose personal rags-to-riches story includes being homeless when he was eleven years of age before putting himself through school and later starting a successful chain of retail discount stores, the fiscally frugal Republican says he wants to duplicate Muskie’s feat, except this time for the GOP, a party that hasn’t captured the governorship since 1990.
It won’t be easy, but just as Muskie’s dormant Democratic Party hadn’t won a gubernatorial election in twenty years, the same thing is true today of Maine’s GOP.
In November, LePage will be pitted against Democrat Libby Mitchell, a former teacher who presides over the Maine Senate. Mitchell, 69, won a four-cornered contest with 35 percent of the vote on Tuesday.
LePage and Mitchell are expected to face stiff competition from Eliot Cutler, a former energy advisor during the Carter administration, who hopes to become the state’s third independent governor since 1974, when businessman James B. Longley, Sr., was swept into the governor’s mansion with 39.1 percent of the vote.
Cutler has staked out the middle ground in the autumn campaign.
Two other independents are also running, including Shawn Moody, owner of a car repair business in Gorham. A political newcomer who has reportedly already loaned his campaign a half million dollars, the 50-year-old Moody started airing television ads this past Wednesday, the morning after the Democrats and Republicans chose their nominees.
This should be an interesting race.