Steven Biel: Governor LePage seems to be in a middle of a full-on public breakdown, and it appears more and more Republicans are looking for an off-ramp after six years of the LePage experience. You publicly broke from LePage more than a year ago, but could the dam finally be breaking with the rest of the party?
Lance Dutson: I think the dam is close to breaking. A growing list of Republicans are coming forward to condemn the governor, and it’s clear that Republicans in Augusta have had enough of this man. We’re in a critical period right now, there are all kinds of dynamics taking shape that will impact the course of Maine politics for some time.
Steven: I think for Democrats in the legislature, this latest episode has really upped the stakes. There have been so many awful things that he’s said over the years, but his behavior this time seems to have raised questions in legislators’ minds about his mental and emotional fitness to serve. That has not been the case in the past, and Rep. Sara Gideon, the Democratic Assistant Leader, is doing a fantastic job keeping the focus on that fundamental question.
Lance: It’s true. Close observers of Paul LePage have known of his character problems for years, but I think partisan loyalties have kept it from becoming the issue it should have been. What’s happening now behind the scenes is a ton of conversation among Republican legislators about how to proceed. There are a number of powerful GOP lawmakers that want him gone, and the growing consensus is that LePage’s resignation would be the best possible thing for Maine. Whether the GOP caucus has the fortitude to make that happen is the big question.
Steven: Amy Volk came out in favor of a censure, and if Republicans wanted to lead the way on something super strongly worded that would in effect be a call for the governor to resign, that could be meaningful. But let’s face it, Democrats did a “let’s all get along” censure resolution last year and Republicans didn’t support it. Another mamby-pamby resolution that has just a few additional moderate Republicans on board is just going to be brushed off by the governor. That doesn’t qualify as “corrective action.”
Lance: Perhaps. I think Democrats are being smart bargainers by saying up front that a censure is not enough. It’s a position they can always bargain back to. And a censure wouldn’t be totally fruitless–it would pretty much end LePage’s fantasy of a U.S. Senate run, and it would place him in Maine’s history book as the worst governor ever.
Steven: What I’m hearing is that leading Democrats want to give their Republican counterparts the space to persuade him to resign, which is smart and appropriate. And remember, if LePage steps down, he’s replaced by Senate President Mike Thibodeau, who is every bit as conservative as the governor and might actually be competent enough to get some of the GOP agenda passed. So there’s no partisan gain there.
Lance: And top Republicans in the legislature feel the same way. They know LePage is unfit to lead. The fear that has encompassed our party to the detriment of the state of Maine is that LePage’s rabid alt-right base will revolt. But my conversations with GOP lawmakers have been encouraging. They seem to finally be done with excuses and are genuinely looking for a way forward that either marginalizes or eliminates Paul LePage as a factor.
Steven: So what does that mean? Let’s say he digs in and refuses to leave, which based on everything we know about this man is likely. In that case, the secretary of state can rule him incompetent, and Matt Dunlap is a Democrat, but Dunlap has publicly ruled out using his position as secretary of state to remove him, and no one I’ve talked to thinks he’ll change his mind. As for impeachment, we’ve been down that road, and frankly Ben Chipman’s failed impeachment effort only strengthened the governor.
Lance: I don’t think impeachment is how this should resolve itself. Richard Nixon was the most powerful man on earth, but the collapse of his Republican support forced his resignation. As the consensus grows that resignation is what’s best for Maine, the pressure on LePage to exit gracefully will be substantial. But I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Republicans in the legislature first have to make one very simple choice: do they want to suffer through two more years of this humiliating nonsense, most likely as the minority party in both houses, or do they want to remove LePage and begin the rebuilding process? That’s what it all comes down to, and there’s really no other middle ground.
Steven: Yes, that is the choice. And while Democrats want to give Republicans the time and space they need to step up, they won’t wait forever. And if Mike Thibodeau, Ken Fredette, Garrett Mason, and the rest of the Republican leadership continues to enable this governor, then I assure you Democrats will spend the next two years and beyond reminding voters about it.
Lance: The other question the GOP needs to ask itself is, do you want a Gov. Thibodeau or a Gov. Troy Jackson? Because lack of action now will mean Democrats may have the votes to impeach after the election. If that’s not motivation to make a move, I don’t know what is.