Cooperative Democrats, discord with Paul LePage upend sportsman endorsements

By Michael Shepherd, Bangor Daily News Staff

Few groups in Augusta have been as interesting over the last few years as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. 

The conservative-leaning hunting and fishing group is best known for fighting referendums on gun control and banning bear baiting, but Maine’s four-year period of Democratic control has changed its place in state politics.

That is largely because the two Democrats sitting at the top of the ticket — Gov. Janet Mills and Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District — have been friendly to the group in policy areas from gun rights to conservation. Disagreements on that latter issue dating back to former Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure led the Republican to pull out of the group’s 2022 candidate surveys.

All of that has upended things for the alliance, which abandoned endorsements this year in favor of a 12-page guide to Maine’s federal and state elections that was released on Thursday. Mills got an A grade, while LePage drew an incomplete score after his withdrawal. Golden got an A+ and former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, got an A after the group endorsed him in 2018. The group’s grades favor Republicans in legislative races.

None of this is all that surprising given the mix of top-tier issues over the last few years. While Mills supported gun control measures during her 2018 primary, she warded Democrats off from advancing them after she was elected, eventually replacing a so-called red flag bill with a “yellow flag” compromise brokered in part by the sportsman’s alliance.

After ignoring the group’s survey in 2018, Golden has also become an ally. He has opposed Democratic gun control measures and put forward a safe-storage measure backed by the alliance and its director, former Republican state Sen. David Trahan.

When Congress was negotiating over a recent gun, mental health and school safety bill, he and Sen. Susan Collins worked closely with the group, particularly on a provision that would allow funding to bolster the “yellow flag” law here and more-stringent versions in other states. Poliquin opposed that measure, aligning with the National Rifle Association and House Republican leaders, but the alliance still calls him an ally.

The story with LePage is more complicated. During his tenure, he stridently opposed gun control measures along with the sportsman’s group, but he also held up land conservation bonds that it supported. He often criticized land removed from the tax rolls, although Maine’s share of tax-exempt land was larger at the beginning of his tenure than the end. Flush with revenue, Mills has expanded a key conservation program.

LePage was interviewed by the alliance, but he did not answer all of the survey questions. After an interview cleared up some of the gaps, he asked the group to pull his survey from consideration. It left the answers confidential, but the group laid out some areas of disagreement in conservation and federal funding for certain projects.

His answers show he is still reluctant to embrace land conservation while mapping out a political comeback. Mills and Golden have also taken gun-rights issues more off the table in these two races than any other pair of high-profile ones in some time in Maine politics. Some will still be disappointed that one of the major groups in state politics is not issuing endorsements anymore.

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