It’s not unusual for Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s comments to make national news.
The two-term Maine Republican has a penchant for speaking off the cuff in a similar tell-it-like-it-is manner as the presidential candidate whom he’s endorsed, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
But his most recent comments sound a lot more like current GOP front-runner Donald Trump, earning LePage — who as recently as Thursday said he was thinking “very seriously” about running for Senate in 2018 — more national attention.
“This is probably the most overtly racist thing he’s said,” said Maine Republican Lance Dutson, former communications director for GOP Sen. Susan Collins’ campaign. Dutson first drew attention to comments the governor made at a town hall in western Maine on Wednesday on his blog “Get Right Maine.”
“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home,” LePage said.
As Bangor Daily News reporter Michael Shepherd noted, that’s been a familiar refrain in LePage’s public remarks. What surprised people — both in Maine and across the country — was where LePage went next.
“Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road,” he said.
LePage held a news conference Friday to address the response to his remarks. But instead of apologizing for what he said, he blamed the media for twisting his words and ignoring the heroin crisis engulfing Maine.
“I made one slip-up,” LePage said. “I may have made many slip-ups. I was going impromptu and my brain didn’t catch up to my mouth. Instead of saying, ‘Maine women,’ I said, ‘white women.’ I’m not going to apologize to the Maine women for that because if you go to Maine you will see we are essentially 95 percent white.”
In the national media, Trump gets credit for a straight-talking brand of populism that plays on voters’ fears and often includes comments judged racially insensitive. But LePage, who came to power in 2011, has been at it for a while. In 2011, he told the NAACP it could “kiss my butt.” He’s also compared the IRS to Nazi Germany. And in 2013, he said President Barack Obama “hates white people.”
“It’s caused considerable consternation in Maine today, but it will die back down. I can’t tell you how many of these things we’ve had,” one Republican said, suggesting LePage’s remarks would not have the impact on Maine Republicans that Republicans are worried Trump will have on the national GOP.
“He says things like Trump, he’s smart like Trump — and it pains me to say Trump is smart — but I really think he’s not as calculating as Trump. When he speaks, it’s what’s coming in his head,” a Republican in the state said of the governor.
But for the state’s other Republicans, that’s part of the problem.
“The real central struggle for Maine Republicans is public sentiment is as much on our side as it’s ever been,” Dutson said. “My concern with this stuff — it’s very important for the Republican brand up here that people understand that we don’t agree with these statements,” Dutson continued.
Although Richard Bennett, chairman of Maine’s GOP, said in a statement Friday, “It was right for Governor LePage to acknowledge his mistake and apologize for his ill-chosen words,” so far, Maine’s Republican delegation hasn’t condemned the governor’s remarks. (Nor has Christie, who, as Republican Governors Association chairman, aggressively campaigned for LePage in 2014.)
“No elected Republican is going to want to weigh in on it. The governor is known for his retributional nature,” Dutson said.
Among those who have been silent is freshman Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who served as state treasurer at the start of the LePage administration and who faces what’s likely to be a competitive rematch in November.
President Barack Obama carried Maine’s 2nd District twice. A member of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Patriot Program for vulnerable members, Poliquin has been an early impressive fundraiser and has at times portrayed himself as a more moderate Republican to fit with his blue-collar district.
“I think they share a very strong belief in fiscal conservatism,” Dutson said about the connection between Poliquin and LePage. But Poliquin, he added, “has been much, much better at convincing people in his electorate who aren’t that hardcore that he’s the best choice.”
“That’s a lesson the governor could learn from,” Dutson said.
“Voters can distinguish between LePage and Poliquin and between LePage’s comments and the work that he does,” another Republican in the state said, pointing out that the governor was “ahead of his time” in addressing the Northeast’s heroin epidemic.
Democrats from Hillary Clinton to 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree and 2nd District candidate Emily Cain, quickly condemned LePage’s most recent remarks.
“The underlying connotation of what he said goes beyond Obama hates white people,” said David Farmer, a senior adviser to former Rep. Michael Michaud’s Democratic bid for governor against LePage in 2014. “It’s a line that’s used to justify violence against black men and boys, and he’s made no concession of understanding why someone would have a problem with that,” Farmer said of the governor’s Wednesday remarks.
Some Republicans dismissed the notion that LePage is racist, pointing out he has a Jamaican son.
“I really don’t think the guy is racist. I think he makes racially insensitive comments,” a Republican in the state said. “But he treats everybody the same, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a positive way. But it has nothing to do with race or religious affiliation or gender. The guy is just one of those guys.”
“He is amused by it sometimes. He loves it when he makes a headline on Drudge — shows how tough he is,” that GOP source said.
U.S. Census Bureau figures confirm that Maine’s population is 95 percent white. But its major population centers in Portland and Lewiston-Auburn have significant African immigrant communities.
“How do they feel?” the same Maine Republican said. “That’s the piece that [LePage] can’t process, and that’s what’s most frustrating to me.”