Picking the primary winners: Republican edition

Last week, I laid out my predictions for the Democratic primary for governor. This week I’ll continue the wild speculation with my thoughts on the Republican primary.

Where the Democratic primary is shaping up as a battle between the various factions within the party, the GOP primary is more of a contest between individuals seeking to inherit the LePage legacy.

Republican candidates for governor, clockwise from top left, Shawn Moody, Garrett Mason, Mary Mayhew, Ken Fredette.
Troy Bennett | BDN

Former Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew has been campaigning the longest, in fact her campaign arguably began before LePage’s 2014 reelection campaign ended. This is both a positive and a negative. Ostensibly, campaigning longer means meeting more voters, but it also means spending more money. Mayhew has shown herself to be a hard worker on the campaign trail, and structurally her team is doing a good job checking off all the obligatory campaign boxes.

Mayhew has some major problems, though. Her record as DHHS commissioner includes massive financial mismanagement, plagiarized reports, and gross neglect of Maine’s most vulnerable. As Senate President Mike Thibodeau said during his last debate as a candidate, Mayhew has “more unclaimed baggage than the Portland Jetport.”  I don’t believe Mayhew will win this primary.

GOP House Minority Leader Ken Fredette is considered the lag-behind of the rest of the candidates. His campaign has raised a negligible amount of money, and general enthusiasm seems limited. In all candor, though, Fredette is probably the candidate who would best be able to execute the job of governor. His background as a lawyer, along with the leadership experience he’s gained through his service in the Maine Air National Guard and as GOP House Leader, means he understands the State House and has the ability to function as a chief executive. This is arguably a more concrete foundation for becoming governor than the other candidates have.

However, campaign politics is its own discipline, and there are not many signs out there that point to Fredette becoming the Republican choice.

Recent Republican convert Shawn Moody has received significant attention from this column outlining his deficits as a candidate. Despite my displeasure with his candidacy, Moody has to be considered a serious contender for the nomination, for two reasons — money, and the support of the governor via his daughter and political team. Moody is funding his campaign with his significant personal resources, and though money isn’t everything, it sure goes a long way. And carrying the imprimatur of the governor is the highest symbolic win a candidate in the Maine Republican primary could hope for.

But Moody has stumbled in public, and there are significant questions about his actual positions on issues. It will be up to his opponents to leverage his mistakes to their benefit. If they don’t, he could well be the nominee.

This leaves Maine Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason. I believe Mason will eke out a win and become the GOP nominee.

Mason’s shrewd decision to opt for Clean Elections funding for his candidacy turned out to be a brilliant move, and revealed a formidable campaign structure. It was a massive effort to collect the thousands of $5 checks necessary to qualify for state funding, and the result is a network of supporters across the state who can now be leveraged to help voter turnout. Taking Clean Elections funding also frees Mason up to speak with voters instead of spending his time calling donors. He will be financially competitive with Moody, and this means the contest will be decided on the issues, rather than on fundraising prowess or personal wealth.

In a head-to-head with Moody on the issues, Mason wins walking away. Mason is solidly socially and fiscally conservative, where Moody is evasive about his positions. Mason is a proud conservative with a voting record to match, and is unapologetic about this. He does not equivocate, he does not pander, and this comes across in his public appearances. This solid ideological foundation, coupled with a pro-grade campaign team with the experience and maturity to run a first-class race, should put Mason in a solid position come June.

If my predictions are correct, we’ll see Mason face off against Janet Mills, Terry Hayes, and Alan Caron this fall. It’s going to be a bad year overall for Republicans, but the math of this race, where two left-of-center independents pull votes from the Democratic candidate, gives the GOP nominee the structural advantage.

The June primaries are seven weeks away, and anything could happen. It’s going to be a fun year in Maine politics.

A quick note: I’m diving headlong into campaign work this year, and will be going on hiatus from this column until November. We’ll see if my predictions held any water when I return after the election.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.