Capitol Notebook: Maine Republicans advance, Democrats seek a path

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Even Gov. Paul LePage must have been surprised by the success of Republicans running for state Legislature.

Like many others, he had predicted that Democrats would take control of the state Senate, but although they gained, they did not win control. And the governor, whose recent public outbursts had led him to apologize and seek spiritual counseling, didn’t get the rebuke he expected.

While everyone was coming to grips with the dangerous ride that Donald Trump’s election has brought us, Maine Republicans increased their influence in the Legislature.

Democrats did gain in the Senate, but it is still held by Republicans by a one-vote margin, enough to retain Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, as Senate president. And Republicans increased their numbers in the House of Representatives, solidifying the base of LePage’s most stalwart ally, party leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport.

A few weeks before the election, LePage described the election as a contest between elites and working people, and the results may have borne him out. The connection between the state Democratic party and working people in rural Maine, as well as in traditionally Democratic bastions such as Lewiston/Auburn, has frayed in recent years.

Since LePage’s first victory in 2010, Republicans have pitched themselves as the defender of working people, often by pitting workers against immigrants and welfare recipients in a successful politics of division. And Democrats have narrowed and solidified a base that is coastal, educated, and prosperous, which has been effective in the protection of minorities and advancing issues such as marriage equality.

But the realities of the economic issues that drive voters, and the gap between the fortunes of the two Maines, are sharper than they have ever been.

Maine’s rural working-class voters deal with generational poverty, no matter which party is in power. Paper mill jobs disappeared, due to changing markets and trade agreements. And nobody from Augusta from either party has effectively provided alternative economic development in the face of an economic cataclysm.

Older generations in Maine’s rural towns, whose mill jobs used to provide a solid middle-class lifestyle, can’t see the same future for their children in the towns where they grew up. And into that vacuum, a rural drug addiction crisis swept in.

A stagnant state government has not stemmed the tide. Maine voters wanted change. These voters, like the state, backed Barack Obama twice, but didn’t see the hope and change that were promised.

The good news is that the upcoming legislative session brings a very close balance of power, which could enhance the cooperation and progress on Maine’s acute problems of drug crisis, poverty, and the need to improve education. The Senate especially has a strong tradition of moderate Republicans who have worked well with Democrats.

The biggest drama of the new Legislature, which will happen very early in the session, is the proposed two-year budget that will start on July 1, 2017.

The power in the state has always shifted back and forth between the two parties, with a third of voters not aligning with either party, but officially unenrolled, or independent. The challenge for both parties, as we head fast into a 2018 gubernatorial race with candidates already heading for the gate, is who can reach those rural voters whose lives resemble the reality of Appalachia more than the other New England states, which have now become Democratic.

Maine Democrats will meet this weekend, Nov. 20, to begin to chart their course. There are likely at least three candidates for the role of party chairman, now held by former Gorham state legislator Phil Bartlett, who is expected to seek re-election. Also seeking the post are former legislators Diane Russell of Portland and Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, who were both term-limited this year from re-election in their House districts. Russell and McCabe were both backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

The outcome of the meeting may reveal if the party wants to change direction.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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