Gov. Janet Mills declared victory over former Gov. Paul LePage Tuesday night.
“We’re not going back,” Mills shouted during a speech to supporters shortly before midnight, meaning not back to the days of LePage.
President Biden called Mills to congratulate her about 11:30 p.m., according to the White House.
LePage did not concede but was heard late Tuesday telling disappointed supporters “next time.”
Mills secured huge wins in Lewiston, former Gov. Paul LePage’s hometown, and in Waterville, where he served as mayor for six years.
With about 56% of the votes counted Tuesday evening, Mills led LePage 53% to 45%. Independent Sam Hunkler had 2%. As of 11:20 p.m., Mills held a nearly 32,000-vote advantage, with the Democratic stronghold of Portland — Maine’s largest city — yet to report final numbers.
Mills, a 74-year-old Farmington native and the state’s first woman elected governor, was seeking a second term against the former two-term Republican governor. A 74-year-old Lewiston native, LePage served from 2011 to 2019 before leaving office because of term limits.
Tuesday’s gubernatorial election was the culmination of a hard-fought — and expensive — contest between two well-known political heavyweights, waged against a shifting national backdrop.
Mills’ supporters gathered at Aura in Portland after polls closed. Campaign staffers sounded confident by 9 p.m., encouraged by wins in Falmouth, Biddeford and later Lewiston.
Mills arrived at around 9:30 p.m. She was greeted with a big round of applause and danced with her grandchildren.
After Lewiston announced its results, Mills spokesperson Scott Odgen said the campaign was “cautiously optimistic about the outcome.”
“There are still a lot of returns to come in, but we feel cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We firmly believe that Maine people want a governor who fights problems, not people.”
LePage gathered with supporters and campaign staff at his headquarters in Lewiston.
Shortly before 11 p.m., LePage emerged from his war room defiant after losing his hometown to Mills. He called the governor “an elitist.” His wife, Ann, was smiling but her daughter, Lauren, was tearful at his side.
“Right now, the election doesn’t look very well,” LePage told supporters. “Are we conceding? Absolutely not. I will tell the American people and the Maine people, if heating oil is not as important as abortion, if you prefer abortion over heating oil and feeding your families, then I’m telling you I should have never gotten into politics. And I am telling you one thing right now, this winter is going to be brutal.”
While it wasn’t a concession speech, LePage was heard telling supporters “next time” as he walked toward the stage.
Earlier in the day, he greeted voters at a local school. LePage and his wife, Ann, greeted dinner-time voters in the colorful hallway at the Longley School in Lewiston with Rick LaChapelle, a city counselor who is running for state Senate.
LePage told well-wishers in his native city that he is heartened by the high turnout in Maine’s small towns, which have reported having so many more voters than expected for a midterm election that they had to print extra ballots.
By 9:30 p.m., a small group of supporters and party officials had gathered in the second floor of the former Peck Building that doubles as LePage’s Lewiston campaign headquarters to await results.
LePage, his family and his advisers stayed downstairs in what they were calling the war room to field calls and tabulate incoming vote counts, with a campaign official popping upstairs now and then to grab a burger, do a quick stand-up TV interview over the country music soundtrack getting piped in or shake an inevitably red-clad donor’s hand.
A LePage campaign adviser said the former governor was hoping to narrow the margins in 20 or so communities around Portland that Mills won four years ago.
The race for governor was clearly a big reason for the heavy voter turnout across the state.
In Portland, Yvonne Marmet voted early in the morning before she went to work. She’s retired, but said she took a retail job to help with rising costs resulting from inflation. She supported LePage because she appreciated his conservative approach to government spending and the economy.
“What we’ve worked and put away for — poof,” said Marmet, 58.
The governor’s race was also top of mind for Michael Elovitz as he cast his ballot first thing Tuesday at Merrill Auditorium. He said he is alarmed by the direction of the Republican Party and those who deny election results without evidence.
“I voted for Janet Mills,” said Elovitz, 40. “I think Paul LePage is atrocious and scary for the state. I think she’s doing more.”
The contest was the most expensive governor’s race in state history.
The final dollar tallies won’t be known until December, but more than $27 million has already been spent on the governor’s race, including $20 million by groups not affiliated with any campaign. The vast majority of the outside spending — nearly $18 million — went toward attacking a candidate.
The candidates, meanwhile, have spent more than $7 million combined, with Mills holding a significant fundraising advantage over LePage, raising $5.7 million to his $2.6 million.
A year ago, the race seemed to be dominated by concerns over pandemic mandates. The national narrative changed early this year, as voters began feeling the pinch of rising gas prices and global inflation.
Abortion erupted as a major issue in June when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that guaranteed women a constitutional right to abortion for the past 50 years.
The decision outraged women and Democrats, offering the party some hope that they could overcome traditional headwinds of being the party in control of the White House in a midterm election.
Abortion seemed to dominate much of the campaigning here and nationally throughout the summer. But attention began shifting back to pocketbook issues, particularly rising inflation and the high cost of home heating oil, in the fall.
While focusing on economic issues, LePage had attempted to moderate his positions on issues such as abortion and immigration in an attempt to appeal to moderate voters who would decide the election. He had won his previous two races in 2010 and 2014 in three-way races that included a strong independent candidate with money and name recognition, Eliot Cutler.
This race, however, lacked a formidable third-party candidate. Hunkler, a retired Beals physician and political newcomer, qualified for the ballot, but ran a nontraditional campaign. He shunned campaign donations, choosing instead to self-fund a campaign that would cost no more than $5,000. And he only participated in one debate with Mills and LePage.
All 186 seats in the Legislature — 151 in the House and 35 in the Senate — also were up for grabs. Democrats currently control both chambers, but election forecasters say Maine is one of the few toss-up states when it comes to which party will win control of the Legislature.
Election officials across the state were tallying not only the ballots that were cast in person on Tuesday, but also a record number of absentee ballots for a midterm election. As of Tuesday afternoon, 251,967 absentee ballots were requested and 235,164 had been returned. Roughly half of those absentee ballots were cast by Democrats.
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said she expected 70% of the state’s nearly 905,000 registered voters to cast ballots either in person or absentee. That’s higher than for the 2018 midterm election but less than in the 2020 presidential year.
Staff Writers Penelope Overton and Eric Russell contributed to this story.