I realize some might scoff at the idea of calling Maine a politically right-of-center state. Despite having a conservative Governor, a GOP-controlled legislature, and two multi-term Republican U.S. Senators, Maine is usually written off as a left-leaning blue state. It hasn’t gone for a Republican presidential candidate since moderate George H.W. Bush in 1988 and despite recent polls that show a tightening race in Maine’s second congressional district, it’s looking less and less likely that moderate-wrapped-in-a -conservative Mitt Romney will buck that trend statewide. Maine’s first congressional district, on the other hand, has produced one of the most genuinely progressive politicians in the country today, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. And that GOP-controlled legislature? That feat took Maine Republicans 40 years to accomplish. Still, in seemingly every statewide election of recent memory, the progressive Democrat always loses to center-right Republicans and Independents.
Chellie Pingree can attest to this truth in her failed Senate bid against Senator Susan Collins in 2002. Former Congressman Tom Allen also lost to Collins in 2008, a landslide year for the Democrats in which many of her fellow Senate Republicans lost their seats. Some might point to former Governor Baldacci’s two meandering, unpopular terms serving in Augusta as an example that Maine Dems can still win statewide elections in Maine, but few would seriously argue that the Bangor native is cut from the same progressive cloth of CD-1’s Pingree and Allen. Then there’s the recent, and perhaps most stinging, loss for Maine progressives at the ballot box: Libby Mitchell’s disastrous gubernatorial showing in 2010 where she garnered a pitiful 19% of the vote. In other terms, 81% of Mainers rejected her brand of progressive politics that year.
I was working for Independent Eliot Cutler during the general election campaign in 2010. In late September we had still failed to break 20% in the polls during the three-way race, with Tea Party favorite and Mayor of Waterville, Paul LePage leading the pack and state Senate President Libby Mitchell not far behind. Many of Maine’s political chattering class were writing Eliot off as a spoiler who was throwing off what would be an otherwise easy win for the experienced Democrat. I recall seeing an email to the campaign from a medical professional who claimed he would leave the state if such a scenario played out. If LePage won, he warned, he was out of here. It’s like those Hollywood types who claimed they leave the country if Bush got elected back in 2000. I’ve always suspected such threats are hollow at best, but if the gentleman in question did indeed follow through with his threat, let me be the first to say good riddance!
Despite what some LePage backers might have you believe, Eliot ran as fiscally conservative reform candidate with the goal of producing long-term solutions to Maine’s many fiscal and economic woes. He understood, like many Republicans, Independents and moderate Dems, that the roadblocks to Maine’s economic success were barriers that government put in place: a high cost-structure that kept business from expanding, an inconsistent regulatory environment that scared investment away, and structural state debt issues that made the future uncertain. I find it hard to argue that this way of looking at Maine’s problems was anything but a fiscally conservative perspective.
He was conservative on other points too. He had specific plans for reforming welfare, strikingly similar in tone and approach to Mr. LePage’s proposals at the time. Eliot was also no friend of Maine’s teachers union, arguing forcefully for allowing charter schools into the state and for enacting performance-based pay for teachers (Governor LePage and the legislature passed charter school legislation last year). Eliot was standing up for policies and reforms that many Democrats, and even some moderate Republicans, wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot poll. In fact, the Maine Democratic Party was so concerned about Cutler’s candidacy that they ran a smear campaign against his business and law background in China, accusing him of the greatest crime you can commit in the minds Maine’s progressives: Outsourcing jobs to China! For anyone following the current presidential race, this line of attack should sound awfully familiar.
And who can forget the racist anti-Cutler mailers produced by Maine Dems that year? Plastered with pictures of fortune cookies and jingoistic Red China imagery, it was the height of hypocrisy for a Democrat Party that claimed to be champions against racism and xenophobia. For my Republican friends: can you imagine if the Maine GOP pulled something like this? Just imagine the media narrative: “Racist Republicans at it again!”
For all intents and purposes, Eliot was the moderate Republican candidate that year. When he was asked during a televised debate which American politicians he most admired, he answered with Republican governors, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey, two men widely known for their successful fiscal reform policies. At seemingly every turn, Eliot Cutler was attempting to draw support from Maine’s fiscal conservatives and moderates, not this mythical 61% coalition where progressives and moderates were agonizing about which candidate could beat LePage. The vast majority of Eliot’s support came from people who were voting for him, not against Paul LePage.
It’s no wonder then that Mr. Cutler came within a couple of percentage points shy of beating Mr. LePage on election day, capturing 37% of the vote. Along with other independents, who also campaigned more like conservatives and moderates rather than as liberals or progressives, Cutler and LePage voters made up 81% of the electorate that year. Libby Mitchell, meanwhile, went home early that night with 19% of the vote. This was a striking rejection of everything Maine progressives stand for.
Of course in Portland they have a slightly different way of remembering these events. It is hard to drive around the Old Port for more than a block or so without seeing a vehicle plastered with one of those 61% stickers on its back bumper or rear window (usually that of a Subaru or Prius – not being biased here, it’s just a fact). The sticker is a patch of solidarity for Portland’s progressives that they wear in protest of a governor who only received 39% of the popular vote. But contrary to what they will tell you, Eliot Cutler’s candidacy was never splitting some grand moderate-progressive coalition. Instead it was splitting a much larger coalition of fiscal conservatives and fed up fiscal moderates who knew 4 more years of tax-and-spend progressive policies were not going to bring the state back to prosperity any time soon.
As we approach the final leg of the U.S. Senate campaign to replace longtime Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, comparisons between senate race and the 2010 governor’s race are hard to escape. Once again, we’re told that the Democrat and Independent are supposedly splitting up the same share of voters. I still find this theory suspect: while Mr. King has recently taken a major thumping in the polls, it seems much of the support he’s actually lost is from Republicans, not Democrats. And unlike Cutler and LePage, Mr. King enjoys the highest name recognition of any other Maine politician. This is nothing like the challenge Eliot Cutler faced in 2010, who had less than 1% name recognition at the outset of the governors race.
If the King campaign really wants to stop the bleeding, they have got to start talking more about fiscal issues such as Mr. King’s opposition to the costly and onerous banking regulations of Dodd-Frank or his support of Simpson-Bowles, the bipartisan deficit reduction plan that both President Obama and House Republicans rejected in 2010. Flying Mr. Bowles up for a talk in Portland last month was a good start, but the King campaign needs to bring this message to the air waves. It’s also a good opportunity to give Mr. King some distance from the unpopular economic policies of a President he otherwise supports for re-election. King shares a lot in common with the average Mainer in this regard: many in the state are unhappy with the current state of the economy, but they, like King, are not quite willing to dump the President in favor of Governor Romney.
Meanwhile, the Summers campaign knows it needs to further solidify its conservative base if it’s going to win this thing. The attack ads that out-of-state Republican groups are running against Mr. King are having their intended effect: peeling off Republicans who may of liked Angus as Maine’s governor back in the day, but who are uneasy about his more recent business dealings and advocacy of wind power.
One thing that should give the Summers campaign pause, however, is the way the Maine GOP foolishly mishandled its state convention earlier this year. These actions by the state party have no doubt disenfranchised some of the hardest-working activists in the party, the Ron Paul crowd. Though it’s unlikely that a significant number of these registered Republicans will jump ship for Libertarian senate candidate, Andrew Ian Dodge, don’t be surprised if a lot of the Paul-backers stay out of the Senate race this year. It’s certainly not helping Mitt Romney, who many Ron Paul activists are dumping in favor of Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson. All of these events are in stark contrast to 2010, when Tea Party and Ron Paul activists were solidly behind the Republican nominee.
Still, one truth from the 2010 election remains: Maine’s fiscal conservatives and moderates are going for candidates that talk about balanced budgets and fixing a broken, stalled economic recovery. The tax-and-spend progressive policies that state Senator Dill advocates for are not going to have wide-appeal among Maine voters this year, just as they haven’t in any year prior.
So if you’re of the Portland crowd, expecting that mythical 61% moderate-progressive coalition to swoop in and propel Cynthia Dill (or Angus King) to victory on election day, think again.
After all, Maine is a center-right state.