This is a guest post by Amy Fried, Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine and Maine Co-Director of the Scholars Strategy Network.
Gov. Paul LePage won a big victory on Tuesday, with a larger percentage of the vote than in 2010. That night he evoked a theme that resonates with all Americans, saying, “[E]very person born in Maine should have the opportunity to carve out their piece of the American dream.”
How did he win?
Election Day 2014 was a day Republicans will cherish, as they gained across the country, picking up the U.S. Senate and gaining seats in the already Republican House. LePage’s success was part of that partisan surge, but it was also helped by a strong campaign strategy and some local conditions.
The GOP’s approach included softening LePage’s image and imposing message discipline. The last six months were nearly completely free of the sorts of statements that got him into trouble previously, and Democrats never ran an ad recounting them. Republican communications asked voters to focus on what LePage did rather than what he said.
When talking about the governor’s actions, he and his campaign were focused and repeatedly stressed tax cuts, the hospital debt, welfare, and the economy. While nearly all of these issues were more complicated and less positive than portrayed — for instance, Maine’s job picture was not strong in regional or national terms — the very repetition served LePage well.
LePage’s campaign also was aided by the bear-baiting referendum, as areas supporting him were motivated to come out in opposition, with the issue also aiding congressional candidate Bruce Poliquin.
And then there was the Ebola nurse, Kaci Hickox, whom LePage sought to quarantine. While public health officials disagreed, this helped LePage. When people worry about their safety, they want someone to protect them, whether or not the threat is significant or even real and, as the incumbent, LePage was well-positioned to benefit.
It is no small irony that the Humane Society of the United States and a health worker contributed to the re-election of a governor who blocked Medicaid expansion, a policy that undermines the health and lives of thousands of Mainers.
As for LePage’s opponents, Mike Michaud was not aggressive in defining the policy terrain. Instead, the Democrat’s campaign emphasized Michaud’s status as a replacement for LePage and Michaud’s proven ability to work across the aisle. While Maine has typically supported bipartisanship and civility (and those messages serve Susan Collins well), they were not enough for Michaud or Emily Cain. And it was a bad year to be associated with Congress.
While Michaud’s status as a gay man did not come up in any overt fashion, this probably caused him to lose some votes.
As for Eliot Cutler, although he told early supporters he would not act in a way that would help LePage get reelected, he and LePage often were a tag team focused on Michaud. Cutler seemed perturbed that Michaud, no Harvard- and Georgetown-trained lawyer like him, was ahead of him in the polls.
On the eve of the election, Cutler’s campaign sent out an email criticizing Michaud from the left. These messages could have held down Michaud’s margins in Portland and other Democratic strongholds. LePage’s campaign touted Cutler and, as LePage celebrated his victory on election eve, the governor suggested that Cutler would make a good attorney general.
While Maine Republicans have much to celebrate, their 2014 wins were less sweeping than 2010, when they won full control of the Maine Legislature.
This time, Democrats lost control of the state Senate while retaining the House. In 2010, Republicans took seats in Bangor. This year, the Bangor legislative delegation, all Democrats, won reelection. Bangor’s state legislators helped keep some revenue sharing funds in the budget, and they will have an important role in the next LePage term.
Many conservatives opposed the bonds, but all passed, most with strong margins.
For Democrats, this should provoke internal analysis; discussion of how legislative leadership from southern Maine influences the party’s stances and its statewide image; and attention to how it can reclaim opportunity as its message.
Every political shift brings some triumphalism from the victors. But no single election is the final word on what government does and doesn’t do. Maine and the nation have seen many shifts in the last decade and surely more will come.
This is a cross-post with Pollways, a member BDM Maine Blog network.