Nobody was more surprised than Maine Democrats at their own stunning victory in last week’s elections.
With the election of Janet Mills as governor, and the party in control of the Legislature, Democrats have suddenly emerged into bright sunlight, after eight years of fighting through a tunnel, constantly reacting to the obstruction and personal attacks of a belligerent governor.
The best result from Tuesday was the voters’ rejection of the nativist and anti-immigrant strategy that Republicans employed in state and federal races. Late in the campaign, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Brakey unleashed anti-immigrant themes in his ill-fated bid to defeat independent Sen. Angus King. He tried to stoke fears that Democrats would try to repopulate Maine with Latino immigrants.
Even late-inning intervention by Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted that King was trying to “repopulate Maine with Syrian and Somalian refugees,” didn’t help Brakey.
And most of the candidates backed by right-wing, anti-immigrant state Rep. Larry Lockman (who did win re-election to a final House term) lost in a big way. These included Rep. Paula Sutton, a Republican incumbent from Warren, whose PAC sent false mailers accusing a Democrat in another district, Pinny Beebe-Center, of failing to stop female genital mutilation. Beebe-Center won, Sutton lost.
The ad from Sutton’s PAC was placed in the Courier papers very close to election time, and its placement brought a subsequent apology from Courier owner Reade Brower (who also owns the company that publishes the The Forecaster, Portland Press Herald, Sun Journal in Lewiston and most other Maine newspapers).
Brower was direct in his apology. “It was an attack ad and in poor taste, using graphics of razor blades next to Pinny’s name and a screaming baby with wording suggesting Beebe-Center was unwilling to protect girls from genital mutilation,” he wrote.
Democrats had argued that the bills in the Legislature were anti-immigrant and unnecessary to stop a practice that was already illegal. The controversy over the ad, and Brower’s apology, brought the issue to the forefront, and the voters’ reaction was clear.
Republicans and other conservatives are having difficulty figuring out why they lost, avoiding the obvious truth: Maine voters were sick and tired of angry partisan stalemate in Augusta. Gov. Paul LePage, analyzing the defeat of his hand-picked successor, Shawn Moody, on a radio program, opined that Republicans and independents had stayed home, and were “dumb, fat and happy.”
One of the big questions that remains is whether Maine Republicans, who attained power in Augusta riding the Tea Party revolution of 2010, can reconstitute themselves into a party not based on nativism and bigotry.
The surprising outcome of the night was the resounding defeat of Question 1, which would have increased some Mainers’ taxes to build a network of home care services for the elderly and disabled. Sixty-two percent of people voted against it, rebelling against another confusing attempt by Maine People’s Alliance to raise taxes and direct social policy by referendum. Now that Democrats will rule Augusta, MPA should may try to craft these policies through a more willing Legislature.
This election also rebuked the efforts of those who back independent candidates, with no hope of winning, in a vain attempt to strike a blow against the supposed flaws of the two-party system. The stakes were so high in this election, and the demand for change so great, that voters fell in line behind Mills, who always had the only realistic chance of bringing that change to Augusta.
Maine politics is, for now, a bipolar world, and – at least this year – the only effective antidote to a mess made by one party is to install the other one. The circumstances that propelled Jim Longley and Angus King to successful independent campaigns for governor were from a long-vanished era and are unlikely to be repeated.
We will see in the next few months if Democrats can hold on to the striking unity they demonstrated in Tuesday’s victory, or if the party will suddenly subdivide and attack each other. But all signs point to advancing an agenda that a majority of Mainers have wanted for a long time, including expansion of Medicaid coverage, already passed by voters in referendum.
The party leaders who worked so hard for this victory deserve nothing but praise.
Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.