Beware conventional wisdom; it has a nasty habit of being anything but wise.
After everyone had picked their collective jaws off the floor upon hearing of Sen. Olympia Snowe’s retirement, the very first thing we all saw was the birth of a brand new political meme, repeated endlessly by gleeful Democrats and overpaid pundits alike: Maine is now a Democratic pickup waiting to happen.
To believe this is analytical malpractice at its worst, and betrays a deep misunderstanding about Maine politics. This is something I’ve come to expect from a national punditocracy that can’t be bothered to do even their most basic homework on the state’s political culture.
Consider the otherwise very astute statistician Nate Silver. Desperate to weigh in on the Snowe retirement and sound provocative, he loudly proclaims that the Democrats are strongly favored to win Snowe’s seat, and tries to use very superficial drive-by analysis to make his case.
“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.”
Silver is of course right that Maine is homogeneous demographically, but he fails to understand that it is not homogeneous culturally. Of course, it would require actual time studying Maine to understand this, which is clearly too much to ask.
The rest of us understand that the beautiful people progressive Democrats from southern and coastal Maine do not like or get along with the more blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth Democrats from central and northern Maine.
Mike Michaud the conservative mill worker is not going to sell well to the limousine liberal Democrats in southern Maine. Chellie Pingree is simply not going to resonate with Democrats in economically depressed (former) mill towns in northern Maine. No, being popular in one of Maine’s districts does not mean you can sell statewide — indeed, quite the opposite is often true. Demography and culture are two very different things.
But, not understanding Maine, its people, or its political heritage doesn’t stop national pundits like Silver from trying to pretend. Thus is the genesis of the foolish notion that Snowe’s retirement will inexorably lead to a Democratic victory.
These were, of course, the same folks who told us the 2010 gubernatorial race was leaning Democratic, right up to the end, when Libby Mitchell came in third with 19 percent of the vote. Take them for what they are worth. Not much.
The reality is that yes, Snowe’s retirement did in fact deeply hurt the Maine GOP, and significantly lowered the party’s chance to retain the seat. Yet, suggesting that her absence means the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee should start icing some champagne ignores reality.
The reality? This race should be considered a pure toss-up.
Chellie Pingree is a deeply flawed statewide candidate. She is a lock-step liberal politician in a state that values political independence, and her Nancy Pelosi-style ideology will be a major liability outside her insular home base. Beyond that, she is an opposition researcher’s dream come true, with an army of skeletons in a very large, expensive closet.
Mike Michaud is infinitely more likable, but will have a very difficult time connecting with voters in the first district. He’ll have to explain his supposed pro-life position to southern Maine liberals, which could be particularly interesting if the Republicans nominate a pro-choice candidate (which they very well might).
And John Baldacci? The former governor who left office with an approval rating in the high 20s or low 30s? The same Baldacci who could only muster 38 percent of the vote in his re-election campaign? The same Baldacci who lost the liberal first district to Republican Peter Cianchette in the 2002 race for governor? This is not a strong candidate, folks.
For all the talk of the supposed “weak bench” of Republicans in Maine, any one of the names currently being seriously discussed — Steve Abbott, Peter Cianchette, Kevin Raye and others — have legitimate political experience, moderate profiles and excellent resumes. Underestimating their strength would be suicide.
Add the potential presence of viable independents like Eliot Cutler or former governor Angus King, and Democratic hopes deflate further.
There simply are no favorites in this race. Democrats should stop high-fiving each other and measuring the drapes in Snowe’s office, because their chances at winning this seat look no more promising than anyone else’s.
This will be a real race.
Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.