PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — To some Mainers, Aroostook County might seem like the end of the Earth. There’s little dispute that it lies at the end of the proverbial road and that that road is lined with little more than trees. When it comes to politics, though, it’s anything but no-man’s land.
When the five gubernatorial candidates gathered Tuesday night for a televised debate in Presque Isle, it was considered by some to be the height of what Aroostook County can expect in the way of campaigning this season. According to the debate moderator, it was the only time all five candidates for governor have gathered in what is known throughout the state as The County.
Despite Aroostook County’s small electorate compared with other areas of the state, voters here are acutely aware of what’s going on in other parts of Maine, according to those who know Aroostook County best — and they have a history of helping sway elections. To say anything else about the state’s northernmost electorate borders on insult, according to William Davidshofer. A political science professor at University of Maine at Presque Isle for some 40 years, Davidshofer moved to North Carolina in July when his job was eliminated because of cuts in state funding.
“I think Aroostook County residents have a certain animus toward what they believe is a less-than-favorable attitude toward Aroostook County by the southern parts of the state,” Davidshofer said. “They believe that the southern part of the state believes that is where Maine begins and ends and it ends somewhere just a little north of Bangor.”
In years past, according to Davidshofer, the Aroostook electorate was more influential for two reasons: It was more reliably conservative than it is now and it had a larger population. A migration out of The County and a shifting ideology among some voters may have diluted its impact — but that doesn’t mean The County isn’t important to any candidate seeking statewide office.
“Candidates can’t take it for granted anymore,” Davidshofer said. “Whatever votes they gained or lost here was a plus or minus.”
While many say that The County leans conservative, that wasn’t evident in recent gubernatorial elections. In 2006, Democratic gubernatorial incumbent John Baldacci tallied 13,631 votes and edged out Republican Chandler Woodcock by about 270 supporters. Independent Barbara Merrill came in a distant third with 9,805 votes. In that election, four rural Maine counties — Washington, Somerset, Piscataquis and Franklin — favored Woodcock. In 2002, Baldacci’s support was even stronger in Aroostook County. He thrashed Republican Peter Cianchette here by almost 2-to-1.
But Baldacci’s performance does not mean Democrat Libby Mitchell will fare the same. In a recent poll by the Portland-based Pan Atlantic SMS Group, Republican Paul LePage led Mitchell by 10 percentage points in the northern congressional district while edging her by 5 percentage points in the southern district.
According to Jim Cyr of Caribou, a member of the Aroostook County Republican Committee and local tea party organizer, that’s because Baldacci had something Mitchell doesn’t.
“Baldacci was very astute about investing his time in The County,” said Cyr. “Libby Mitchell has just not invested the same kind of time and effort. I think Paul LePage views this as an opportunity to really build up his votes and offset the votes he won’t get in southern and coastal Maine.”
Cyr said LePage’s “hard work in Aroostook County” will pay dividends, including in the St. John River Valley in extreme northern Maine, an area with traditionally liberal leanings.
“Those are LePage’s votes to capture and they’re like two votes,” Cyr said. “There are no corresponding votes for Libby Mitchell elsewhere in the state.”
At Tuesday night’s debate, held at Presque Isle Middle School, several questions —from area residents — were specific to Aroostook County. Asked how they would eliminate disparities in the economic vitality of northern and southern Maine, the candidates recognized the problem but offered few concrete plans.
“We need to knit the state together,” said independent Eliot Cutler. “Once we understand that we’re going to take off.”
LePage suggested heavier investments in Maine and Aroostook County’s natural resources, including forests, farms and fisheries. Mitchell suggested that Maine market its northern reaches as a “four-season tourist center.”
Cutler, LePage and Mitchell told the Bangor Daily News after the debate that Aroostook County’s vote is crucial — as is the vote from every other county.
“To be honest, I need all the counties,” LePage said, echoing similar sentiments from Mitchell and Cutler.
“Every county in Maine is just as important as the others,” Cutler said.
Patrick Hunt of Island Falls, a member of The County’s Democratic Committee, said Aroostook County voters are a vital part of the rural caucus, which overall outnumbers more populated areas of the state.
“It is a mistake for candidates to turn their backs on rural Maine,” he said. “Some candidates write Aroostook County off because they think they cannot win here. Aroostook voters respect hard work.”
That fact, plus LePage’s religious views and Franco-American background, should translate to an Aroostook County win despite Baldacci’s previous success, according to Hunt.
Cyr uses a more novel method of making predictions: the crowd’s response to the candidates during the annual Potato Blossom Festival Parade, which was held in July.
“The response for LePage and Mitchell was relatively strong,” Cyr said. “For [independent] Eliot Cutler, people just sat on their hands. I find that very telling.”