At first glance, many residents of Piscataquis County seem to fit rather neatly into conservative Republican talking points.
Economically distressed? Check.
Churchgoing, gun-friendly, anti-tax, anti-big government? Check, check, check and check.
The farther away from Maine’s few population centers, the more conservative the residents are likely to be, but Piscataquis County seems to have brought Republican enthusiasm to a whole new level.
This past election, the county earned a unique distinction, but a sobering one for the GOP. Among 65 counties that make up the six New England states, only Piscataquis voted for Republican John McCain for president.
One in 65.
“I guess we’re a lot smarter than the rest,” joked Paul Davis, a former state senator, current state representative and staunch Republican from Sangerville.
Breaking down postelection data can be a tedious process because the numbers don’t always jump off the page, but the picture was quite clear in Piscataquis County this year.
It started with McCain, who took 51 percent of the vote, compared to 47 percent for the Democratic President-elect Barack Obama. Statewide, Obama soundly defeated McCain 58-41.
But Piscataquis County’s Republican proclivity was not limited to the presidential race.
Sen. Susan Collins won a staggering 69 percent of the vote here, compared to 61 percent statewide.
Long-shot Republican John Frary, who was trounced by incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud in the 2nd District House race, got more support in Piscataquis County, 41 percent, than any other Maine county.
Voters also elected Republicans to House Districts 26 and 27, each with at least 64 percent of the vote, and re-elected Doug Smith for Senate District 27.
So what’s so different about Piscataquis County, this large, rectangular swath of land that stretches north from Maine’s midsection and is home to two of Maine’s most recognizable landmarks, Baxter State Park and Moosehead Lake?
“That’s a good question,” small-business owner Tim Anderson said this week.
Anderson is the proprietor of the Monson General Store on Route 15, a one-stop shop for residents needing milk, hunters or fishers needing bullets or bait, and early-morning hikers needing coffee. He didn’t want to speak for his customers and branded himself an independent, but listen to Anderson talk and his conservatism cannot hide.
“I just felt like with McCain, we knew more about him,” he said. “I still feel like I don’t know anything about Obama.”
Steve Boyd, who co-owns Fox Brook Variety in Dover-Foxcroft, admitted he was a little surprised watching the results come in on Election Day. The more he thought about it, though, the more they made sense.
“Democrats tended to be favored in cities and population centers, and we don’t really have any of those here,” he said. “This is it.”
Some of the reasons behind Piscataquis County’s Republican leanings are obvious and, frankly, stereotypical.
First, the county is sparsely populated. The most rural communities in the county, such as Bowerbank, Shirley and Willimantic, favored McCain the most. In larger areas such as Dover-Foxcroft and Milo, the presidential race was closer but still favored the Republican.
Second, the county is hemorrhaging economically and sees taxes as fuel added to a fire. Its per capita income of $14,374 is second only to Washington County’s and well below the state average of $19,533. The county’s unemployment rate of 8.5 percent also is the highest in Maine.
Third, the county is among the oldest in one of the nation’s oldest states. About 18 percent of residents are over age 65. That’s the third-highest in the state.
Fourth, only 13 percent of the population have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to about 23 percent statewide. These are true, blue-collar Mainers, a group with which Obama never quite resonated.
But even without the numbers, the communities within Piscataquis County just feel more conservative. The homes, even the larger ones, are modest. Its people meet in general stores instead of supermarkets and in family restaurants instead of chains. They go to church on Sundays, and they hunt and fish.
When Obama made an off-the-cuff remark during the primary about voters who cling to guns or religion, he could have been talking about parts of Piscataquis County instead of rural Pennsylvania.
Peter Johnson served a partial House term when Earl Richardson died last year and was re-elected this year to House District 27. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1993 and moved back to Maine in 2001 where he got involved with a local school committee. He explained his political leanings this way.
“I think we’re anti-big government, yes,” Johnson said. “People like to run their own affairs, and the perception of many is that there’s a lot of waste involved [in government].”
Tom Lizzotte has been involved in local politics for more than a decade. He was a selectman in Dover-Foxcroft dating back to the late 1990s and has been chairman of the Piscataquis County commissioners since 2003.
“I’m a vanishing breed of moderate Republican,” he said.
Lizzotte said he’s a Republican because he believes in fiscal restraint and he thinks many of his fellow Piscataquis County residents share that attitude.
“There is a vein of self-reliance,” he said. “These are people that don’t live beyond their means, and they think that should extend to government.”
Many would agree that Maine has become a safe Democratic state at least in presidential contests. This year was the fifth consecutive time Mainers have voted Democratic.
And yet, it hasn’t permeated Piscataquis County.
The most recent data available from Maine’s Secretary of State’s office listed about 13,000 registered voters in Piscataquis County.
Thirty-four percent were Republicans, 28 percent Democrats and the rest Independent or unenrolled. Statewide, the percentages for the two major parties were a reversal of Piscataquis County with Democrats accounting for 33 percent of all registered voters and Republicans about 27 percent.
Susan Mackey-Andrews, a Democrat from Dover-Foxcroft, ran unsuccessfully for the state senate seat against Doug Smith. She pointed out that unenrolled voters are still the largest bloc.
“We are shifting, although maybe not as quickly as some other Maine counties,” she said. “I still think people in Maine tend to vote for a person, not a party.”
So, as Republicans continue to be outnumbered both in the Maine House and Senate, as well as the U.S. House and Senate and now the White House, are the principles of Piscataquis County the answer for the GOP?
“The Republican Party is trying to find itself,” said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. “Some are saying the party moved too far to the right, and others felt that the party got away from base principles of small government and fiscal responsibility.”
Lizzotte thinks the reason Piscataquis County is so firmly red is the same reason the state GOP as a whole is struggling to articulate its message.
“Republicans are often the first to trash government,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with government stepping in sometimes. We don’t have to say no to everything.”
Lizzotte said the far-right flank of the party and its values agenda don’t have strong appeal to independent voters, still the largest bloc in Maine.
“A lot of my colleagues were ecstatic with Sarah Palin, but I just shook my head,” he said of the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, who is considered among the more socially conservative members of her party.
Boyd, for one, seemed more excited about Palin than even about McCain.
“She’s actually written a budget,” Boyd said, referring to Palin’s duties as governor of Alaska.
Davis, the former state senator and current representative from Sangerville, said the reasons behind Piscataquis County’s conservatism are simple.
“The people here have been well served by Republicans,” he said, trying not to sound boastful.
He scoffed at the notion that county residents are somehow different from any other Mainers.
”We might be a bit more conservative, but we don’t live on an island out here,” Davis said. “We have the Internet. We have cable TV.”
In the 2000 election, Piscataquis was among five Maine counties to vote Republican. In 2004, only Piscataquis and Washington counties were red. This year, Piscataquis stands alone. But for how long?
“I think it will be a long time before it slips away,” Johnson said of his county’s Republican status.
Lizzotte said it’s nice to be “something of a curiosity.”
“But I’m not sure you want to be the last bastion of anything.”