Sit back, program in hand, to watch hottest show in Maine – the Republican primary race

All the world’s a stage, even Maine.

Wondering what the biggest political drama will be in 2018? Marijuana? MaineCare expansion? Ranked-choice voting? No. These are big issues but not the biggest. The Oscar nominations for political drama will, of course, have nothing to do with public policy but rather with celebrity and personality. The big political story of 2018 will be elections. Who wins, who loses and all the salacious details that now accompany every topic in the public discourse.

The chaos and energy of Donald Trump’s presidency – like a snow bombogenesis – have created a frenzy of civil engagement and a storm of disruption that most of us have not seen before in our lifetime. Congress could change from red to blue in the midterm election as a reaction, there could be an impeachment, and state races at every level are in play because of the sheer madness of the environment.

One good show to watch in Maine is the Republican primary for governor as it unfolds on the stage in Augusta. The setting is the Legislature – both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Here is the cast of characters:

 Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, a recovering hardline right-winger who has discovered that several Democrats, including his fellow presiding officer, House Speaker Sara Gideon, are not nearly as “out there” as many of the Republican delegation at the State House, including the current chief executive. Thibodeau is the pragmatic guy running for the Blaine House in an “aww shucks” kind of way, proudly holding a snow shovel that his family business sells, with an endearing space between his teeth often seen in a charming schoolboy smile. Shawn Moody’s got nothing on Thibodeau’s earnest small-business schtick.

 Mary Mayhew, former health and human services commissioner, who no doubt has the highest IQ of all the candidates but unfortunately for her, that fact is irrelevant. Overseeing the Health and Human Services Department in a poor, rural state is challenging enough in good times. Mayhew made up in confidence and bravado what she lacked in executive experience and tried to reform the social safety net with a hatchet when the economy was reeling from the 2008 economic crash and millions of Americans were addicted to opiates. Her tenure is pockmarked with several abject failures: the decertification of Riverview; the myriad problems that ensued after the MaineCare ride system was privatized; and the improper use of $13 million in federal money set aside for poor kids, for example. She remains a major player, however, because her “tough love” attitude toward hypothetical and anecdotal poor people is red meat for the Republican base, whose ideology is that rich people are smart and poor people are lazy. Mayhew’s character is the new sheriff in town who got her master’s degree in the Soviet Union.

 Garrett Mason is the idealistic, handsome young man. He is the only Republican running for governor as a Clean Election candidate. If the Republican primary were a melodrama, Mason would play the hero.

 Ken Fredette, the House Republican leader, is the villain, and does an admirable job portraying obstruction. The sheer audacity of his unprincipled political positions and shrewdness in contrast to his elevator speech about his Washington County roots is terrifying.

 Shawn Moody is the Johnny-come-lately who got 5 percent of the vote running against political parties in 2010. Why should Republican primary voters support him now? He’s tall? He’s got twang? Moody plays the hotshot who learns a lesson.

With Thibodeau, Mason and Fredette at the State House, the plot is simple. Who can best leverage their position in the spotlight to propel them across the street from the state Capitol to the governor’s mansion? Mayhew and Moody will fight for more than cameo appearances and have the luxury of being far enough away from the fire to get singed.

For guys like Fredette, who likes to throw bombs and blow stuff up, it’s an easy script: Follow the governor’s lead. Just say no.

For Thibodeau and Mason, the needle is harder to thread but easier to watch. They have to appear to be doing the actual job of governing while making the case to the anti-establishment Republican base that government is the problem. Their dilemma humanizes them and makes them vulnerable – a hallmark of good theater. Can the underdogs wheel and deal as legislative leaders when big issues like funding MaineCare expansion, regulating the sale of recreational marijuana, conforming Maine’s tax code to the new bill out of Washington and ranked-choice voting are on the ropes? Or will their willingness to compromise create an Achilles heel that rabid political animals will seize upon?

With Trump’s approval ratings in the tank, Gov. LePage on his way out the door, serious issues at stake, an antsy electorate and such a colorful troupe, we’re in for a treat and there is no fast-forward to the curtain call.

As published in the Portland Press Herald