Steven Biel: The 2016 election is finally over. Shall we take an early look at the field of candidates for governor in 2018?
Lance Dutson: You can’t talk about the Maine governor’s race in 2018 without talking about my former boss, Sen. Susan Collins. If she enters the race, it’s over. No top-tier Democrat would challenge her, and no fringe GOPer could beat her in a primary. That being said, there are a lot of reasons one of the nation’s most popular senators would decide to stay where she is. Suffice it to say, the governorship is hers if she wants it, and Maine would be lucky to have her.
Steven: I think you’re (still) dramatically misreading how much the primary electorate of your party has changed. Sen. Collins is not only establishment — she’s a flaming liberal by modern GOP standards. Head-to-head against Bruce Poliquin, Mary Mayhew, or Senate President Mike Thibodeau — all names I’m hearing — she could be 2018’s Jeb Bush. She’s unbeatable in a general election but may need a three-way race against two conservatives to win a primary.
Lance: If Sen. Collins doesn’t run, then the clear front-runner on the GOP side is Bruce Poliquin. He’s rapidly become the second-most important Republican in Maine behind Susan, and Congress isn’t a place where political powerhouses tend to stay very long. The Mary Mayhew experiment is really nothing more than a joke. She can’t even run her own department let alone win an election.
Steven: A Collins-Poliquin primary would be fascinating. He has shown the ability to run up sizable margins in the Second District. He’s more conservative, and he’d outwork her.
Lance: Poliquin and Collins have been allies for years. You won’t see a primary between the two. If Susan decided to get in the gubernatorial race, I think you’d see Bruce eyeing a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Steven: If it’s not Bruce, I wouldn’t dismiss Commissioner Mayhew so easily. She owns the potent welfare-reform issue, and if it’s a choice between Collins’ experience and Mayhew’s anti-government anger, you could see an upset.
Lance: Disagree. Once GOP voters are educated on her Democratic activist past and the $500 million taxpayer payoff she got as DHHS commissioner for the hospitals for whom she used to lobby, the fantasy bubble will burst pretty quickly.
Steven: Regardless, if Sen. Collins runs, someone will emerge as the “true conservative,” and it’ll be competitive. Thibodeau has the voting record to be that candidate, though his low-key demeanor isn’t a great fit for angry GOP primary voters.
Lance: Sen. Collins has maintained a close relationship with the GOP faithful over the years, especially with Sen. Thibodeau, who has already applauded the idea of her running for governor. If any incumbent is safe from this kind of insurrection, it’s Susan Collins.
Steven: But any relationship she thought she had with the base was gambled on her opposition to Donald Trump. All of this is why I think Sen. Collins passes on the race.
Lance: Maybe, but not because of that. Her voice is needed in Washington now more than ever, and if she passes on this race, that will be the reason.
Steven: So that’s the Republicans. But this is Maine, so we have to talk about unenrolled candidates. Eliot Cutler said in 2014 that he’ll never run again, but will ranked-choice voting change that? His allies started working on changing the rules to make it easier for him before the 2014 race even ended.
Lance: Ranked-choice voting may be ruled unconstitutional, and I have to think Eliot is done with electoral politics.
Steven: Democrats are praying you’re right. Two other names I’m hearing are Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue and former Yarmouth Sen. Dick Woodbury. Vigue in particular could be formidable as a self-funding Perot-style outsider.
Lance: Woodbury and Vigue are both smart guys who would be good for the process. But I think they’ll only get in if the rest of the field looks weak.
Steven: Well, it looks like we’re out of space. Readers, check back next time and we’ll preview who might emerge as the Democratic standard-bearer in 2018 (hint: it won’t be Justin Alfond).