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M.D. Harmon: LePage's 2014 bid gives hope to Maine fiscal conservatives


Being a conservative in Maine, at least in my experience, has involved enduring a fraught relationship with the state Republican Party.

If you’re a social conservative, voting for a typical GOP candidate has often been a matter of swallowing hard and saying to yourself, “It’s for the larger good.” It’s not there haven’t been socially conservative Republicans around, but they haven’t had much influence on legislation.

For example, every bill dealing with abortion that Republican lawmakers submitted over the past three years — including in the legislative session controlled by GOP majorities in both the House and Senate — went down to defeat.

Even a bill forbidding biological members of one sex from using the opposite sex’s public restrooms — including in public schools — was too much for our “conservatives,” and the party, with some honorable exceptions, was generally silent when same-sex marriage came up for another vote.

So, pro-life people were understandably thrilled to see Gov. Paul LePage show up at the Rally Around the Capitol events during his first years in office. It was the most support they had gotten from a top-ranked officeholder in memory, and it was deeply appreciated — even though his visible backing didn’t carry very many lawmakers with it.

But then there are the fiscally conservative Republicans, a larger group within the party (or so they keep telling us), who urge social conservatives (who usually are also staunch fiscal conservatives to boot) to vote the straight Republican ticket no matter how any given candidate feels about abortion and same-sex marriage.

“We’ll never make any progress any other way,” social cons are told. Still, that makes some of them wonder why that isn’t a two-way street, and why fiscal conservatives shouldn’t also be told to vote for social-issue measures “for the good of the party” as well.

Nevertheless, in 2010 Maine voters elected a solidly GOP team in Augusta, one which, despite its failures on one front, produced some solid accomplishments on the other, cutting state tax rates, bringing state pensions back to a more solid foundation, and reining in spending in a number of areas while allocating more appropriately to state needs, including education.

That it was a matter born more of necessity than disinterested virtue, due to pending shortfalls in state revenues, may be germane, but the result was praiseworthy nonetheless.

However, the effort, probably because its major effects weren’t transparent to the average voter (the tax cuts were actually delayed until this year), went for naught when the 2012 elections rolled around.

Democrats stormed back into control of the Legislature and went right back to supporting higher taxes and more spending.

Their major effort, a rewrite of the tax code that resembled the one the state’s voters had rejected just a few years ago, went nowhere, but casting Gov. LePage’s cuts to state aid for towns as “tax hikes” (if they were, they weren’t his), liberal Democrats and a dozen or so Republicans pushed through a budget that hiked sales taxes “temporarily” and restored spending levels on a number of welfare-related programs.

Gov. LePage’s veto went for naught, and the tax and spending hikes became law.

Which leads me to two questions — or, rather, one question and one expression of gratitude.

The question is, why should those of us who value social issues along with fiscal restraint continue to vote for people who end up supporting neither one, just because they call themselves Republicans?

Our votes were sought with the promise that at least we would get part of what we wanted if we voted for the “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” candidates presented to us.

So, where are they now? And whose promises can we trust next time?

It was sadly funny — but not really a joke — that one poster on the As Maine Goes website this week showed a photo of “the new GOP mascot”: a dog with its head hanging down and its tail between its legs.

Which brings me to my expression of heartfelt gratitude: The most heartening thing I read in the paper this week was that Gov. LePage held a re-election fundraiser in Kennebunkport at which former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was the principal speaker and at which LePage announced his decision to run for re-election.

Now, it’s not that I particularly support Jeb for the presidency — though he’s one of a large number of people who would be a better president than the current Oval Office occupant (actually, that description applies to millions of Americans).

No, it was because LePage has become the indispensable man for conservatives in Maine, and if we lose him, we lose someone who will likely not soon be replaced.

Yes, I wish he were a better-spoken man, and one who held his temper more in check (though I can understand why he loses it). But while I might trade Paul LePage, hard-nosed veteran of the streets, for a smoother-talking leader who had the same ideals and the same unbending commitment to them, such a person seems sadly lacking in the Maine GOP.

I would definitely not trade Paul LePage for most of the other leaders we have, too many of whom are smooth-talking “fiscal conservatives” whose commitment to that stand lasts right up to the time they are called upon to cast votes for higher taxes and more welfare spending — and do so.

Some principles. Some commitment.

Anyway, I understood LePage’s earlier statement that he might choose to run for Congress in the Second District. History shows that it is almost impossible to unseat a sitting congressman (even when control of the House shifts parties, incumbents still get elected at 90 percent rates, and the difference is in how many open seats change control).

So the best chance of gaining that seat is if the incumbent, Rep. Mike Michaud, decides to claim the Democratic gubernatorial nod.

But since every indication is that left-wing independent Eliot Cutler plans to make another stab at the office, Republicans have a real chance to benefit again, as they did in 2010, from a split of the liberal vote.

In order to do that, however, there has to be a GOP nominee who will bring out the party’s base strongly. And polls still show LePage with an immense level of support within the party faithful.

If he had headed for the Second District (where he likely would have had a good chance to win in the more conservative part of the state), Mainers as a whole would have lost the last spokesman they have for fiscal restraint and social-issue progress statewide.

I would have been happy to write, “U.S. Rep. Paul LePage, R-Maine” in future columns. But I would far rather keep on writing “Gov. Paul LePage.”

Now that he will seek the Blaine House again, we at least have a hope of holding back the liberal juggernaut from trampling Maine taxpayers — and any chance of a prosperous future — into the dirt.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: mdharmoncol@yahoo.com