Going beyond that blue on Maine’s electoral college map: Democrats and the Senate race

Some in the national press are claiming that the Maine Senate seat is a slam-dunk for Democrats.

2008 presidential election results in Maine by county

It isn’t – and their claims betray a misunderstanding of the complexities of Maine politics.

In my last post, I pointed to some currents in Maine that hurt Republicans’ chances of keeping the Snowe seat. In brief, what Republicans have done with their governorship under LePage and their new legislative majority have made them less popular than when they were victorious in 2010.

But Democrats have some issues, too, and these are rooted in other Maine political dynamics, many of which are long-standing phenomena.

One involves the regional splits in Maine. 

Nate Silver is one of my favorite national political analysts. His work is, by and large, excellent. But, on the two congressional districts, he writes:

Maine is quite homogeneous demographically; being elected from one of the two Congressional districts (as Ms. Snowe was repeatedly from 1978 to 1992) means that one will probably pass muster with voters in the whole state.

In fact, while Maine is quite white through the state, those districts are not all that similar and there are political schisms. A typical description of Maine involves the “Two Maines,” which, to some extent, track the congressional districts.

In any case, the first congressional district is within the Boston orbit and is more urban, younger, more ethnically diverse, and more educated. It is a strongly Democratic district.

The second district is older and less educated and it is very large (so much so that it’s the largest size for a congressional district east of the Mississippi River), with a strong rural nature.  When there is an open congressional seat, it is highly competitive. And presidential candidates pay attention to the district, since Maine can split its electoral votes and the district can be so competitive on the presidential level. Ross Perot came close to winning it in 1992 and, before a story about drunk-driving in Maine broke the weekend before the 2000 presidential election, Karl Rove thought that George W. Bush was going to win it.  People who win in the second district often have cultural continuities with the people there.

Candidates who win statewide in Maine are competitive in rural areas and can appeal to Franco-Americans in the Lewiston area. Cultural connection matters, as does the sense that one is authentic and authentically respects working class people.

So when it comes to the Senate race, these dynamics matter. This is why I thought Matt Dunlap the most competitive of the original set of Democrats running for the state; he’s a second district guy who has credibility in first district, too. Chellie Pingree is a great fit for the first congressional district. Mike Michaud is a great fit for the second congressional district. That doesn’t mean they are interchangeable Democrats for the Senate race, although both have strengths and weaknesses as candidates.

Another issue involves Democrats’ place in a multi-candidate field

With Maine having had two Independent Governors, the presence of an Angus King or Eliot Cutler in the race creates complexity and uncertainty.

Both have shown their ability to appeal state-wide, particularly Angus King. Although he won his first election as governor with a bare plurality, he garnered 59% in his 1998 re-election bid. To put this in perspective, no Maine gubernatorial candidate has done won a majority since and the last time before a Maine governor was elected with a majority was 1982.

Cutler came close to winning the governorship in 2010, although his votes were a combination of votes for him and against LePage. His 36.7% of the vote pales compares to what King achieved.

Still, an Independent candidate could win or could tip the race to a Republican.

Moreover, while Republicans have taken unpopular positions in state government and have internal divisions laid bare by the governor’s race and the recent GOP caucuses, they did just win historic victories in 2010.

To some extent, Democrats’ losses in 2010 — both houses of the Maine Legislature and the governorship — can be laid to the national Republican sweep and the quirks of the multi-candidate Governor’s race. However, as a Democratic legislator who lost his seat said to me in November 2010, “This was a repudiation of us.” Now, that might be too strong a judgment, as it was made a day or two after the election.

But the fact remains that the Republicans did very well in Maine in 2010 and Democrats did very badly.

And there’s more

  • Maine people don’t mind splitting their tickets. All that blue on the electoral college map frequently came with Republican Senators being elected at the same time.
  • The fall ballot includes a marriage referendum, to legalize marriage for gay and lesbian couples. While it has a decent chance of passing, it could affect the race.
  • Who was the last liberal Democrat to win state-wide, either as Governor or Senator? George Mitchell, who was very successful electorally as a U.S. Senator. But he was first appointed to the position and ran the first time as an incumbent. Mitchell left office in January 1995.
  • And, of course, there’s the possibility that state budget decisions and other national and state developments could influence the race, affecting people’s vote choices and likelihood to get out and vote.

With all this, I think Democrats are certainly in much better shape for the Senate seat than they were when Snowe was running. 

And they are additionally helped by having a very strong ground game, which performed magnificently during the fight to restore Election Day voter registration.

Differences between candidates are worth discussing, but I will leave that for another time.

The Maine Senate seat is a strong pick-up opportunity for Democrats. But, depending on who the candidates are — Democratic, Republicans, and Independent — and other dynamics, they may or may not be able to take the seat.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.