Here’s an early look at the GOP field for governor

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Sen. Susan Collins has now ended months of speculation, and decided not to seek election to become Maine’s next governor. Remaining in the U.S. Senate means that the die is more or less cast in both parties, and the race to replace Gov. Paul LePage can truly begin.

On the Republican side, the field is already crowded, and may soon get even more crowded. Former Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew is in. So is House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, Senator Majority Leader Garrett Mason, businessman and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Shawn Moody and Senate President Mike Thibodeau.

There are more people, including Charlie Summers and Josh Tardy, that are thinking of getting in.

On the Democratic side, things are just as crowded. Attorney General Janet Mills is in. So is former House Speaker Mark Eves, attorney Adam Cote, former state Sen. Jim Boyle, former state Rep. Diane Russell, state Sen. Mark Dion and two minor candidates, activist Betsy Sweet and health care executive Patrick Eisenhart.

Like the Republicans, there are others, including auto magnate Adam Lee, who may jump into the race.

It is fitting, in my estimation, that the race to replace LePage is so wide open, with so many candidates running. LePage’s own election in 2010 came from the single most contested, most interesting gubernatorial race in my lifetime.

So who has the inside track on Maine’s own “Game of Thrones”?

Anyone, including me, who tells you that they know who is most likely to win is lying to you. Primaries like this are too volatile, with too many candidates who have unique gifts and equally unique flaws for any of us to truly know right now.

But let’s look at the Republican field anyway.

Among conservative activists, Mayhew has been whispered to be the favorite for the nomination for a long time. Her position in the LePage administration and her visibility and record on the issue — welfare — Republicans care about most gave the early impression of “heir apparent” to much of LePage’s legacy.

But she’s not the only one who can claim that mantle. Fredette has been LePage’s staunchest ally in the Maine House for two successive budget battles, and rallied his caucus to get the governor to the table during the shutdown negotiations this past year. He has a good story to tell there.

Moody, too, clearly appeals to a lot of the LePage base. It is hard to find a candidate who feels more down-to-earth and relatable, who has working-class credibility as well as a compelling personal story and truly important business experience. All of these things were key to LePage’s appeal.

Mason likely is charting a new path and creating his own constituency. He is young, articulate, very smart, energetic and has real conservative credibility. He is going to perform very well among many of the groups that were most enthusiastic for Donald Trump, including evangelical voters and populists, which is likely one reason he is pledging to put “Maine First.”

And Thibodeau, the most recent entrant, himself has a unique story. He has an excellent personal story, and can lean on real business experience in his campaign, and also will lean on his time as Senate president, and his often contentious relationship with the governor, to cut a profile as a conservative who can get things done. He is highlighting the battle over — and ultimate repeal of — the 3 percent income tax surcharge this past session as proof of his bona fides, and makes a good case.

In these early stages, it is simply too soon to really tell you who has the advantage. Again, each of these candidates have certain gifts and certain weaknesses. Republican primary voters are fickle, and there are many constituencies inside the GOP that could provide a base for any of these candidates.

In my opinion, this race is actually going to be less like 2010 — in which LePage clearly dominated the field — and a lot more like 1994, when eight Republicans ran for the nomination, and Collins won with only 21.3 percent of the vote.

That is likely here, where each candidate may in the end be separated by only a percentage point or two. This ultimately means that there really is no front-runner right now, and every single day of the campaign will be important.

The Democrats, on the other hand, do have an early front-runner, and there will be real separation there. I’ll tell you all about that, next week.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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