Republicans’ struggles to find an effective abortion message this campaign season manifested itself on Tuesday on a debate stage in the Maine governor’s race, as former Gov. Paul LePage repeatedly stumbled over a question about how he would handle the issue if voters returned him to office.
The issue has been an advantage for Democrats, whose base has been energized after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade while Republicans face a dilemma over how to reassure swing voters without alienating their conservative base. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat seeking a second four-year term, seemed to sense her opportunity while seated a few feet from Mr. LePage, a Republican who left office in 2019 because of Maine’s prohibition on serving a third consecutive term.
Asked whether she would remove state restrictions on abortion, Ms. Mills said she supported the current law. Maine permits abortions until viability, generally until 24 to 28 weeks, when a fetus could survive outside a mother’s uterus.
“My veto power,” Ms. Mills said, “will stand in the way of efforts to roll back, undermine or outright eliminate the right to safe and legal abortion in Maine.”
Mr. LePage was then asked whether he would sign a bill that placed additional restrictions on abortions in the state. While Democrats hold majorities in both chambers of Maine’s Legislature, Republicans are making a play to flip both in November.
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“I support the current law,” Mr. LePage said.
“And if they brought those bills to you, you would not sign them?” asked one of the moderators, Penelope Overton, a staff writer for The Portland Press Herald.
“That is correct,” he answered.
Ms. Mills then jumped in and pointed out that in Maine, a bill can become law without the governor’s signature.
“Would you let it go into law without your signature?” Ms. Mills asked.
“I don’t know. I would look — that’s a hypothetical,” Mr. LePage said.
“You were governor,” Ms. Mills continued. “You know what the options are.”
“Wait a second,” Mr. LePage said, throwing his hands in the air.
“Would you let it go into law without your signature?” Ms. Mills asked, turning to her left to face her predecessor and repeatedly point at him.
Mr. LePage dropped a pen he had been holding, and bent over to pick it up off the ground.
“Would you allow a baby to take a breath?” he asked, twisting the pen in his hands. “Would you allow the baby to take a breath, then —”
Mr. LePage broke off his question. It was unclear what he was asking, and a campaign spokesman didn’t immediately respond to requests to clarify or comment for this article.
Ms. Mills, now sitting back in her chair with her legs crossed and her hands folded flatly on the table in front of her, continued to press.
“Would you allow a restrictive law to go into effect without your signature?” she asked, staring at Mr. LePage. “Would you block a restriction on abortion?”
“Would I block?” Mr. Page said. “This is what I would do,” he added, chopping both hands in the air in front of him. “The law that is in place right now, I have the same exact place you have. I would honor the law as it is. You’re talking about a hypothetical.”
“No,” Ms. Mills said with a smile. “We’re not.”
Ms. Overton reminded Mr. LePage that she had asked about whether or not he would veto additional abortion restrictions.
“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Mr. LePage said.
“I do understand the question,” Ms. Mills interjected. “My veto pen would stand in the way.”
“When you say restrictions, I am trying to understand,” Mr. LePage said.
Another moderator, Jennifer Rooks, who hosts a radio show on Maine Public, stepped in and asked Mr. LePage what he would do if lawmakers passed a bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks.
“Would you veto that?” Ms. Rooks asked.
“Yes,” Mr. LePage said, nodding his head.
Earlier in the week, Mr. LePage had boasted that he wasn’t planning to prepare for the debate against Ms. Mills, according to The Bangor Daily News.
“I’ll eat her lunch,” he said.