AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Democratic Party finds itself in an unusual position this election season. For the first time in three decades, Democrats are on the outside looking in at State House power.
It’s not as dire for Maine Democrats as 1929 to 1933, when all 31 members of the Maine Senate were Republican, and the GOP held dominant advantages in the House. But the 2010 election that yielded GOP majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and placed Republican Paul LePage in the governor’s office changed this year’s campaign dynamic.
“We are strong but still evolving from a shakeup in 2010,” U.S. Senate candidate Cynthia Dill, a Democratic state senator from Cape Elizabeth, said during an Oct. 17 meeting with the BDN editorial board.
Despite minimal support from the national party, whose strategy appears to involve staying out of independent candidate Angus King’s path to the U.S. Senate, Dill said she’s “really proud of the Maine Democratic Party.” She expressed acceptance of the state party’s focus on legislative races this year. “I understand that we want some sort of balance and check on the Republican Party in Maine,” she said.
However, some political observers suggest that an emphasis on countering LePage’s conservative game plan leaves Maine Democrats open to the same complaint that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney leveled against President Barack Obama in Monday’s debate: “Attacking me is not an agenda.”
Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic campaign strategist who manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs consulting firm, rejects that argument.
“Being in the minority heightens the intensity with which Democrats are campaigning,” he said. “But I don’t think it changes their agenda. They are knocking on doors and promoting their vision for helping the middle class. The policy message hasn’t changed.”
But who they deliver it to has changed, according to Frank O’Hara, a speechwriter and former adviser to Gov. Joseph Brennan, a Democrat who served from 1979 to 1987.
“The voters have changed so much during the past 20 years,” O’Hara said. “When I started with the Democrats in the late 1970s, working males in the trades and mills were one of the core constituencies for the party, the working, blue-collar group. A lot of those jobs have gone away. That has created cynicism and anger about government. A lot of that group has gone to the Republicans, which has made Democrats more cautious and defensive about putting out new policies.”
Lee Umphrey, a government relations consultant who served as communications director during Democratic former Gov. John Baldacci’s first term, 2003 to 2007, attributes the change more to a shift on the other end of the political spectrum. The rise of a more conservative movement within the Republican party nationally made its way to Maine in recent years, he said.
As of Oct. 12, voter registration statistics at the Maine secretary of state’s website listed 297,445 active voters registered as Democrats and 258,463 as Republicans. The state has more unenrolled voters — 337,535 — than members of either party.
Four years ago, Democrats held a wider margin, 322,443 to 263,932. The Democrats’ advantage has fluctuated throughout the past 18 years, and not all registered voters in Maine cast ballots for their party’s candidate, but unenrolled voters consistently outnumber political party members. In almost every legislative election from the late 1970s until 2010, Democrats proved more successful at appealing to independent voters.
“Democrats in the last 20 years have widened their middle, while GOP has pulled rightward,” Umphrey said. “That created a polarization that allowed LePage to win. You can see it in [2nd Congressional District candidate Kevin] Raye and [U.S. Senate candidate Charlie] Summers joining a national trend to go right.”
Cuzzi concurs, noting that the Republican sweep of Maine in 2010 was part of a national wave. “It was the ying to the 2008 yang,” he said, referring to the year in which Obama’s election provided coattails for Democratic candidates at the federal and state levels.
O’Hara and Umphrey agree that the recent prolonged hard economic times also contributed to a scenario that made voters more likely to direct fear and anger at the party that had been in power for a long time. LePage capitalized on that angry mood, and played to Maine voters’ tradition of supporting candidates who show an independent streak, to win the Blaine House in 2010, Umphrey said.
“I do think this phenomenon of rural Maine communities losing their economic core, which is a long-term thing, is really frustrating,” O’Hara said. “It makes people mad and frustrated and is a natural reaction to blow it all up.”
Two years later, has that dynamic flipped?
Not in the sense that Democrats have adopted wholesale ideological changes, Cuzzi said. The historically rare status as a minority party means that Democrats don’t find themselves defending state government’s recent actions or inaction. Instead, they can campaign aggressively against legislation passed during the past two years of Republican legislative control.
“The motivation is different this year,” said Ben Grant, who became Maine Democratic Party chairman after the 2010 election. “We saw what total Republican control of Augusta means over the last two years. It means an attack on some of the cherished achievements that make Maine a great place to live. It puts at risk much of the progress we’ve made over the last few decades.”
The clear absence of money in the state budget to fund big new ideas, which in the mode of Dirigo Health have been cornerstones of many past Democratic party campaigns, means that “Democrats are running more on values than on programs this year,” O’Hara said.
As laid out in the Democratic party’s platform, those values include support for same-sex marriage, movement toward health care for all and protection of union rights. Those value statements differ markedly from the Republican Party platform for 2012. Yet both parties assert that they represent Maine’s working people and middle class.
Umphrey said LePage’s tendency to be “boisterous” during the first two years of his governorship provides Democrats with a campaign season target, but he warned that they should be careful not to treat races for legislative seats, which tend to be less partisan contests between neighbors, as referendums on LePage’s personality.
Grant argues that Democrats have focused on LePage’s agenda, not the governor as a person, during the campaign.
“It’s very obvious that the governor has been asked by party leadership to play a very quiet role in this election cycle,” Cuzzi said. “In a lot of key Senate districts, the governor is not a net asset to Republican candidates.”
However, after Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell’s distant third-place finish behind LePage and independent candidate Eliot Cutler in 2010, this year’s absence of a Democrat with strong backing from the party could prove detrimental in the long run, Umphrey said.
“I think the party misplayed this election in Maine for not encouraging [Chellie] Pingree or Baldacci to seek the U.S. Senate nomination, then not strongly endorsing Dill,” Umphrey said.
To hold the ideological middle in a state where the GOP is veering right, and independent candidates like King and Cutler have enjoyed success, Democrats must carry on the party loyalty that marked Baldacci’s service in elected office, he said.
Regardless of whether Democrats regain control of the Legislature this year, new leaders will have to emerge before 2014, when a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s office will be contested.
“Some of the senior members of the Legislature ought to think about bringing it up a notch,” Umphrey said. “That clearing-the-woods process is good for states and for Maine especially.”
Despite the shift in voter demographics, O’Hara said he’s hopeful about the future of the Maine Democratic Party.
“I think that the party needs the reorganization, but there needs to be a shot of new ideas, too,” O’Hara said. “The Republicans are coming with the ‘Let’s change, let’s make it better, let’s change it this way’ approach. The Democrats need to come out with some new ideas as well, and that’s where the work needs to be done.”
Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.