It's difficult not to view the nursing home kerfuffle and its eventual solution through the lens of the gubernatorial race. The blame-and-guilt rhetoric alone was a good sign that a serious and complex issue was simplified for electoral purposes. Then there was the unlikely scenario of reaching a compromise through the media over the initial $5 million funding proposal that would likely serve as a half-stick Band-Aid for rural nursing homes facing deeper challenges (Medicaid reimbursement and competition with rural hospitals for patients, to name just two.). And then the idea that simply bringing lawmakers back to Augusta would have magically led to a passable bill without advance negotiations between the LePage administration and legislative leaders. It simply doesn't work that way.
In any event, it's all over now except the crying (and the crisis). LePage's announcement Thursday that he's going at it alone by using, of all things, a Medicaid surplus (!?) means that he effectively achieved a two-fer, plus a stick-it-to-'em bonus. He gets to position himself as the get-things-done chief executive against the Democratic-controlled Legislature, his frequent foil ("We are taking action, and the Legislature isn’t part of this solution," he said Thursday.). He and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew -- a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018 -- also used the occasion to triumphantly extol the suddenly rock solid financial status of a $2.4 billion Medicaid program (Back in January, the department claimed the program had blown a $100 million hole in the budget.).
To boot, the administration's entire nursing home rescue package will use a Democratic-sponsored law as its delivery mechanism. It's a proposal that LePage never signed, but allowed to become law.
As politics go, it was a masterful exercise. Democrats can hope that the public remembers that the Legislature was the first to come to the aid of nursing homes last year, and more recently three months ago. Those efforts, however, we're accompanied by a fraction of the media coverage that LePage received.
But what was driving this thing? The results from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald last month might provide some clues.
Voters age 50 and older are reliable, or reflex, voters, according to studies. That's important, especially in a midterm election and gubernatorial race that could hinge on voter turnout.
The same bloc also comprises a significant portion of LePage’s base of support. Forty-three percent of the likely voters age 50 or older in the poll had a favorable view of the governor. Michaud also drew support among respondents 50 or older. An average of 55 percent have a favorable view of the Democrat, while 43 percent of those who said they may vote for him fell into the same age bracket. An average of 12 percent of the respondents who said they would vote for independent Eliot Cutler were 50 or older.
Meanwhile, the above graphic shows that Democratic candidate Mike Michaud performing well with older voters. He led LePage in respondents age 50 percent to 64 percent, while Cutler had 13 percent. Michaud's lead narrowed among respondents 65 and older. He led LePage 42 percent to 39 percent, while Cutler had 10 percent.
Older voters and their families are probably most likely the members of the public paying attention to the nursing home dustup. They were also probably paying attention when the LePage administration issued a press statement last month in which the governor effectively lumped Social Security and Medicare into a category of public benefits that the governor referred to as “welfare, plain and simple.”
LePage later sought to clarify the statement, saying he doesn’t consider Social Security a form of welfare and accusing the media and his challengers of twisting his words. Cutler blasted the governor for the remark. Michaud's campaign hasn't stopped bringing it up.
LePage also criticized Michaud, a former state lawmaker, for voting for a bill in the Legislature 12 years ago that would have taxed some Social Security recipients. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Angus King.
Nursing home costs and Social Security are core issues for older voters. James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, told the Press Herald last week that the senior vote isn't monolithic, but they would be paying attention.
And that's likely why there's so been so much noise about nursing homes, and before that, Social Security.