Meanwhile, LePage succeeded in attracting the notice of conservative Republicans outside Augusta. He was a vocal supporter of the 2006 Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), a ballot initiative to force strict limits on government spending that was championed by the Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC). He made the papers by writing a scathing letter criticizing the Maine Municipal Association for opposing the plan and told reporters he had received dozens of congratulatory e-mails, some urging him to run for governor. "He spoke and wrote OpEds in favor of TABOR, and that's when I first got to know him," says Tarren Bragdon, a former legislator who worked at MHPC at the time and would soon become its director. The following year, the conservative think tank honored LePage at its annual Freedom and Opportunity Luncheon.
"The party started asking him to run for house or run for senate, and I said, Paul, in my humble opinion, stay away from the legislature, because there you can't do everything right no matter who you are," recalls Charles Gaunce, president of Central Maine Motors and treasurer of LePage's mayoral campaigns. "Do the job you're doing in Waterville for one more round, and then go right for the governorship." One day over a breakfast meeting, LePage said he just might do that.
Meanwhile, LePage's in-laws were in poor health, and Ann moved to Florida to care for them, buying a home in Ormond Beach and becoming a resident. The LePages claimed homestead exemptions for both their Maine and Florida properties, and were later forced to pay back taxes in Maine. Both their children attended Florida State University as Florida residents — Lauren for one and a half years, Paul Jr. for all four — saving the family nearly $80,000 over the out-of-state tuition rate. (Ann, who was the sole owner of their Waterville property, did not reestablish Maine residency until July 29, 2010, after her husband won the Republican gubernatorial primary.)
With their kids in college and money in the bank, the LePages were considering retirement, but LePage convinced Ann to let him run for the Blaine House. "I told my wife — she's such a sweetie and she's so gullible — I told her, honey, I think I want to run for governor," LePage recalled last year. "I'll give it a shot. If I lose, we retire and we go away into the pasture and that's the end of it." Soon thereafter, LePage's inner circle started holding weekly meetings in Charlie Gaunce's conference room to plan their unlikely conquest of the state's highest office.
LePage would ride into office on a wave of corporate money from the likes of Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, and the Corrections Corporation of America, but until he won his party's nomination, his campaign was literally a small-town affair. His "kitchen cabinet" — so named because they met in Paul's kitchen — was led by former Waterville police chief John Morris, a retired naval officer who had worked psychological warfare in Vietnam and commanded a tank landing ship and the Chinhae naval base in Korea, but had no political experience. (He now heads the state police.) John McGough, now the governor's chief of staff, had been Waterville's assistant city manager. Laverdiere had been mayor. John Butera, now his chief economic advisor, headed the Central Maine Growth Council. Scott Van Orman of Sydney, a retired Sappi manager, was a longtime friend. Treasurer Richard Swanson had moved to the area after a globetrotting financial management career at DuPont, Delmarva Power & Light, and Gunn Partners. (He is now treasurer of LePage's political vehicle, People Before Politics.) Morris ran much of the primary campaign from a laptop and cell phone in his bedroom.