When Maine Gov. Paul LePage was first elected, there’s no doubt his conservative idol was Ronald Reagan. But his political crush was on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who first took office in January 2010, while LePage was still campaigning ahead of his November election. As luck would have it for LePage, Christie – chairman of the Republican Governors Association – is in Maine Wednesday to headline a fundraiser for him.
Christie’s brash style – sassing of reporters, shaming of public school teachers over their pensions, his willingness to say impolitic things – all appealed to the similarly inclined LePage.
But the difference is Christie’s moves, while true to his personal nature, are ultimately serving a calculated, political purposes.
By beating back reporters, he proves to conservatives he’s not cozy with the liberal media. But Christie also knows how to soften up when the cameras are off and charm and schmooze (particularly national) reporters who will help shape his image as he gears up for 2016. When Christie used town hall settings to denigrate public servants over their bloated pensions that were dragging on New Jersey’s finances, he was sending a signal to Democrats in charge of the legislature that he wasn’t afraid of being demonized for pushing for cuts. But he often ended up working in lock-step with legislative leaders during his first term. And when cracking jokes that other pols might not attempt for fear of offending some supposedly important person or constituency, Christie is really appealing to Everyman voters but proving he’s just like them.
Not so for LePage. When Christie shoots, he scores. LePage often trips over his shoelaces.
Instead of engaging with the press when the narrative veers sour, LePage often shuns them – often further skewing coverage by forcing it to be one-sided. Instead of finding a way to notch legislative victories with a Democratic-led legislature, LePage for a time outright refused to meet with State House leaders. And when the then-61-year-old LePage joked about his 70-year-old female rival’s age during his first campaign, he came across as mean and sexist, not a man of the people.
Christie balances his sarcasm and bull-in-a-china-shop approach with sophisticated savvy. He knows how – and when – to play nice and be contrite. He won as an unabashed conservative in a blue state in a landslide. LePage is in a knock-down, drag-out fight in a race he likely will only need about 38 percent of voters to support him to win.
Perhaps Christie – who has jokingly called LePage “crazy” – will pass on a few pointers over the lobster and booze Wednesday night.