Since the election, I’ve been asked numerous times what lies ahead for Maine Republicans. Now that I have been elected as the assistant GOP leader in the Maine House, I’ve fielded the same question in media interviews. Although no one comes right out and says it, they seem to be wondering how we can possibly recover from such a tough loss.
Actually, I am optimistic. I believe that bedrock Republican principles are the same values held by most Maine citizens. Those principles include individual freedom, limited government, fiscal responsibility and a belief that free enterprise is the best path to prosperity.
If you want evidence that these basic values have vast appeal in Maine, take a look at what Democrats campaigned on. I knocked on doors and stopped at gas stations in almost 40 House districts in this election cycle. Not once did I see a Democratic “palm card” or flier that said they wanted to raise taxes or increase the size of government.
By and large, Democrats ran on the Republican platform because Mainers respond well to commonsense principles. As history shows us, of course, once they are elected, Democrats go right back to their old ways — big government and higher taxes. But who knows, maybe this time it will be different.
There’s no question that we suffered a significant defeat. In the Maine House, we went from 78 GOP members to 58. What is striking is that we sustained such large losses after the landmark accomplishments of the last Legislature, the first one with a Republican majority since 1974. We took on the heavy lifting that Democrats had pretty much ignored for years.
With pension reform, we rescued the retirement system for teachers and state workers, putting it back on sound financial footing without cutting benefits for anyone. We passed a $150 million tax cut package that eliminates the state income tax for 70,000 low-income filers and provides an annual reduction of more than $300 for middle class Mainers. By cutting regulatory “red tape,” we made life easier for company builders and entrepreneurs so they can concentrate on business and create jobs instead of battling the bureaucracy.
Through these changes and many others, we upgraded Maine’s business climate, making big leaps in national rankings of the best states for business. In a recent report, the Maine Labor Department said employers added 7,400 private sector jobs last year after Republican pro-growth policies kicked in.
With a record like that, we hoped to do well on Election Day. In retrospect, we know the cards were stacked against us. Democrats and their allies outspent us by two to one and turned out a large number of new voters. President Barack Obama carried Maine by a 15-point margin, and Democrats rode his coattails. Moreover, an onslaught of negative ads distorted our record beyond recognition.
After looking at voter enrollment numbers, it is clear that we Republicans have some work to do. Among registered female voters, 29 percent identify themselves as Republicans as opposed to 39 percent who align with the Democratic Party. The gap is even worse among voters aged 18 to 25. About 19 percent of them are Republicans compared to 33 percent who register as Democrats. That leaves about half of these young voters unenrolled.
So why am I optimistic about a Republican rebound? As the youngest House Republican, I know that all is not lost for our party and the youth vote. College students and recent graduates are like everyone else. They want decent jobs and careers with a chance to live a good life. When you talk about getting government out of the way so the entrepreneurial spirit can thrive, they get it – most of them, anyway. By getting across our principles to young voters and everyone else, I believe we will do well in the future.
The incoming House Speaker Rep. Mark Eves said recently he looks forward to forging alliances with House Republicans to do what is right for the people of Maine. If Democrats are willing to join us in building on the achievements of the last Legislature, I think this will be a productive session.
House Republicans know there is work to be done. We know it’s important to pay our hospitals the MaineCare money they are owed, more than $400 million, including the federal match, to save jobs and lower health care costs. We need to continue eliminating barriers that prevent companies from hiring. And we need to make sure our schools continue to innovate so the next generation of Mainers is well prepared for the future.
These are things that will benefit all Mainers, and we are eager to get started.
State Rep. Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, is the assistant leader of the House Republicans.