Down East 2013 ©
Overnight, Maine Turns Red,” declared the headline at the New York Times, the day after the November 2 midterm election, in which Republicans took control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since 1962.
Paul LePage, a social conservative with Tea Party backing, had edged out his independent rival — and destroyed his Democratic one — on a promise to slash taxes, spending, public services, and regulations. Despite having adopted a party platform pledging to seal the borders, refuse federal stimulus money, and shut down the federal Department of Education, the state G.O.P. had captured the state Senate (as expected) and the House (which surprised virtually everyone). The Democrats’ eight-year lock on state government had come to an end.
Mainers, it seemed at first blush, had taken a hard turn to the right just two years after giving Barack Obama victory in fifteen of the state’s sixteen counties. The national commentariat started writing moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s political obituary, predicting she would be unable to win her party’s primary now that Mainers had shown a willingness to elect a conservative Republican to statewide office.
Or had they?
Southern and midcoast Maine voters had also chosen liberal Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree — who supported health-care reform, the stimulus package, and efforts to address global warming — over conservative Republican challenger Dean Scontras by a 57 to 43 percent margin. Voters in “the other Maine” chose another Democrat, Congressman Mike Michaud over another conservative, Jason Levesque, 55 to 45 percent, who ran on a “government is the problem” platform.
“Pingree and Michaud won overwhelmingly in fundamentally two-way blue vs. red races,” says state Representative Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), the outgoing majority whip. “But the governor’s race was much more muddied by the presence of other candidates.”
Though victorious, Mr. LePage actually received less support than either Mr. Scontras or Mr. Levesque — just 38 percent. Nearly two-thirds of Maine voters had voted for someone else, with 37 percent backing independent Eliot Cutler, a centrist who started the race with neither name recognition nor a party machine, but won the endorsement of every daily newspaper in the state, save the Biddeford Journal. (It endorsed Democrat Libby Mitchell, a thirty-six-year veteran of the state legislature, who got just 19 percent of the vote.)
“The top of the ticket races would indicate that maybe Maine is a blue state, but that in the governor’s race the blues attacked each other, enabling a red win,” says Ron Schmidt, chair of the Political Science department at the University of Southern Maine.
“It’s sort of like the 2000 [presidential] election, where if Nader hadn’t been on the ballot in Florida, Gore would have won,” adds Colby College government professor Sandy Maisel. “Quite frankly, if Mitchell had not been on the ballot, Cutler would have won.”
Mainers also endorsed both bond issues on the ballot, granting permission for the state to borrow more than $23 million to invest in dental clinics, dental education, conservation land, and the preservation of working waterfronts. In June, primary voters also approved another four borrowing measures, most of them by margins that almost certainly included many LePage supporters. If the Tea Party movement’s focus on shrinking deficits and the reach of government had caught on with a majority of Mainers, they’ve had a funny way of showing it.
“I don’t think Maine has shifted hard to the right,” says Representative Pingree, one of the only Congressional Democrats in the entire country to actually increase her electoral support compared to 2008. “Maine proved itself to truly be an unpredictable swing state where voters like to make up their minds and don’t like to be told what to do.”
Robert Monks, Sr., credited with mentoring Bill Cohen’s career in the state as G.O.P. chair in the 1970s, agrees, noting that Mainers repeatedly elected Snowe and fellow Republican Senator Susan Collins over the past fifteen years, even as they put Democrats in control of most everything else. “Honest to God, you really have to conclude that Maine voters know what they’re doing,” he says. “They think, they apply discretion, and they are voting for individuals. And I say, hurrah!”
That said, the election swept Democrats from Augusta, clearing the way for Republicans to enact their agenda unimpeded. What’s not clear is what sort of agenda Maine Republicans are agreed upon.
Their infamous Tea Party-inspired platform demands a return to “Austrian economics” and “the process of assimilation of immigrants” and prohibitions on same sex marriage, abortion, “political correctness,” and “any participation in efforts to create a one world government.” Investigations into “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth” are to be launched, and “obstacles created by government to allow private development of . . . natural gas, oil, coal, and nuclear power” lifted.
Prominent Republicans dismiss the platform — which was passed in May by an overwhelming majority of the party’s state convention delegates — as an irrelevant aberration. “I think to some people it’s an important document, and to others it’s the product of a convention battle,” says outgoing House minority leader Josh Tardy (R-Newport). “Nobody has told me about the inner workings of the plan for a one world government, so our focus is going to be on jobs and the economy.”
“We’ll have to wait and see if the Maine Republican Party is going to govern like its platform indicates, or if it will maintain the Maine tradition of a fairly practical approach to policy making,” says USM’s Schmidt. “LePage seems fairly committed to a very conservative agenda.”
On the campaign trail, LePage pledged to reduce the cost of health insurance by allowing insurers to not cover pre-existing conditions, to lower energy costs by constructing nuclear power plants, and to institute a flat income tax that would represent a windfall for Maine’s wealthiest citizens. He promises to ferret out alleged waste and abuse, to audit every government regulation to see if it is “costing us new job opportunities,” and to impose a lifetime limit of five years in welfare benefits, after which he “will personally buy [recipients] a ticket to Massachusetts so they can start over.”
Colby’s Maisel, a one-time Democratic Congressional candidate, fears the worst. “I think we’ll see huge cuts in state regulations and employees. He’ll take the environmental agencies and consolidate them and strip them of power, and will do the same for health coverage and welfare payments,” he says. “Those who feared LePage would win didn’t expect the Democrats to lose the House. I had a friend who voted for LePage because he ‘wanted to blow up Augusta.’ Now he just might be able to.”
For all of LePage’s bravado on the campaign trail — he promised one audience that once in office he would regularly be in the headlines telling “Obama to go to hell” — Republican leaders were signaling a desire to work from the center.
“Paul says you have to respect the views expressed on platforms, but you’ve got to govern for everybody,” says LePage’s spokesman, Dan Demeritt. “This is not a victory lap, not ‘our way or the highway,’ ” he adds. “He’s going to govern and reach accommodation in a thoughtful and inclusive way, involving as many people as we can regardless of party.”
Incoming Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Perry) notes that most Republican legislators won by talking about the need for regulatory reform to jump-start small businesses, rather than anything in the party’s platform. “I’ve visited countless small businesses and I own one” — Raye’s Mustard in Eastport — “and you hear exactly the same conversation everywhere you go,” he says. “Maine is so severely over-regulated that you spend time doing paperwork and trying to keep ahead of the regulations imposed on your industry rather than concentrating on what it is your business actually does.” No wonder, he says, that Maine ranked last in Forbes magazine’s latest annual survey of the “Best States for Business.”
“I want to make sure we don’t fall victim to what the Democrats did nationally, which is overreaching,” Raye concludes. “I don’t think voters are looking to lurch from one extreme to the other. They’re looking to see common sense and progress on Maine’s debt load, budget, and economy.” An early indication that firebrands are not calling the shots: G.O.P legislators spurned their favorites to elect Raye and moderate Republican Representative Robert Nutting to the top leadership posts of the Senate and House respectively.
Nobody knows just how the Tea Party crowd will react should the newly elected Republicans turn out to be reformers rather than revolutionaries. Tea Party activist Andrew Ian Dodge — a libertarian with little love for LePage or the G.O.P. platform — says the Republicans shouldn’t take the movement’s support for granted. “All of us are giving LePage the benefit of the doubt, but it will be interesting to see how long his non-fanatical supporters will give him before they turn on him,” he says.
Still, an agenda along the lines Raye proposes may suffice. “Many want LePage to get government the hell out of the way, reducing taxation and red tape. If he does that quick, then he’ll have their eternal support,” says Dodge, a Harpswell-based science-fiction writer. “They want stuff done and now because it’s a matter of being able to stay in this state or having to leave for financial reasons or to feed their family.”
Maine’s new political leaders are also confronting a horrific $1 billion budget deficit for the next two years, one that will almost certainly require radical cuts to state programs. “This is the worst budget crisis in Maine’s history, and to get it to balance is going to require that we cut something like $300 million out of the state’s share of the Health and Human Services department,” says retiring state Senator Peter Mills (R-Cornville), a moderate who lost to LePage in the gubernatorial primary. “We’ve already cut comparable amounts in the last few years, so the only way to do that would be to cut back substantially on current services, which will rip the heart out of the social services network.” Raising taxes is impossible, he says, as there would be a people’s veto.
“The question is how to make the cuts intelligently and not kill people. It’s come to that.
“The burden of leadership is on us now, which is why I’ve been out in front to try to help,” Mills adds, noting that his party has to act competently, given the stakes.
Outgoing Democratic Governor John Baldacci agrees that the state faces a major crisis, “the worst recession since the Great Depression,” and one that will require all hands on deck. “Everybody should do their part to help the new administration be successful because we’re all in the same boat, and we need to be sure we’re all rowing in the same direction,” he says. “Mainers are looking for people willing to speak beyond the parties.”