It was polite, orderly, with some rows of empty seats. The Maine Democratic Convention this weekend also had its rousing and humorous moments. Of note was former House speaker Hannah Pingree, who stood at the podium and said to welcome laughter, “Yes, I am pregnant. Number two. Somebody around here has got to have more Democrats. I’m working on it.”
In an offhand way, she hit the point. The party has lost support. To gain back popularity will require rejuvenation and new energy. It was clear that to win the election for the U.S. Senate seat in November, the Democrat who prevails in the primary will have to work hard for greater name recognition and will have to perfect his or her message about how to improve the economy.
It’s a tough time to be a Democrat after the loss of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office in November 2010. There’s strong potential that what happened in that 2010 gubernatorial race — where Democrats split in order to vote for independent Eliot Cutler — will happen again with independent Angus King, a front-runner in the race to replace Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.
The convention held at the Augusta Civic Center served largely to boost enthusiasm among the party faithful, but the challenge now and in the coming months will be to draw support from unenrolled voters, who make up the largest voting bloc. Democrats will have to get specific not just about their nausea for Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans but why they are better leaders.
That will be difficult in the Senate race where, even if the Democratic candidate has good ideas, he or she will be facing an uphill battle against King for name recognition. A Critical Insights phone survey conducted at the beginning of May asked 800 residents to name any of the Senate candidates. A whopping 46 percent named King, and 42 percent couldn’t name anybody.
The polling data is limited, but if the Democratic Party has a front-runner in the Senate race preceding the June 12 primary, it appears to be state Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth (though she does not show a strong lead). Of residents surveyed by the Maine People’s Resource Center between March 31 and April 2, 20.3 percent said they would vote for Dill, while 16.7 said they would vote for former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland got 6.2 percent. Ben Pollard, who owns an ecoconscious construction company in Portland, got 1.9 percent.
Dill also gave the most thorough, memorable speech at the convention. She talked about repealing the George W. Bush tax cuts, redirecting tax dollars from the military and toward education, increasing fuel-efficiency standards, creating a single-payer health care system, promoting locally grown food and standing for “economic and social justice.”
Hinck addressed similar topics but paid more attention at the beginning of his speech to the need to protect the environment and foster greater renewable energy sources. “The world is starting to run a fever,” he said. He went on to speak in support of reproductive rights and marriage equality and against big money in politics and the attack on collective bargaining.
Pollard stuck mainly to ideas concerning foreign policy, national security and ecological sustainability. “I don’t like fundraising. I don’t really like promoting myself. I consider myself a man of ideas,” he said.
Dunlap spoke about helping the vulnerable, such as the neighbor who goes to McDonalds not to eat but to get warm. He emphasized the need to keep college affordable. “However tired we are, however daunting the challenge, we the Democrats must answer the call. In these dangerous times, that’s the big picture,” he said.
Once the rhetoric fades, it’s clear the Democrats have a lot more work to do. We’re looking for new ideas, leadership that people across Maine can buy into, a solid plan about how to direct sustainable business development. Democratic supporters chanted President Barack Obama’s slogan of “fired up, ready to go” throughout the convention. Now they have to make clear to the rest of the state how they will draw in more Democrats and give birth to a new sense of purpose.