DAVID FARMER

A small change, a radical reaction

Posted Aug. 17, 2011, at 4:22 p.m.

If you knew nothing about Maine, its politics or its current political divisions, you could look at the two proposed congressional maps presented by Republicans and Democrats and decide that both are reasonable.

But we are not blessed with that veil of ignorance.

Mainers take politics seriously, they pay attention and they vote. And they know what the Republican Party is trying to do with the court-mandated redistricting that is going on right now.

They know that Rep. Chellie Pingree lives in North Haven; they know that Rep. Mike Michaud is a former mill worker from East Millinocket. And they will quickly recognize that the Republican map would put them both in the same redrawn 2nd Congressional District.

They also know that the Democratic redistricting plan would move Vassalboro, about 4,300 people, from the 1st district to the 2nd. The Republican plan would move more than 300,000 people from one district to the other.

More than likely, they also know that Maine is quirky. We don’t have a winner-take-all electoral vote for president like most states. Instead, we can split our electoral votes along Congressional district lines.

And they realize that the Republican Party is trying to take advantage of the last census to radically change politics in Maine for their own advantage.

If you can’t win the election, change the rules.

In a GOP sweep last year, an absolute collapse of the Democratic Party, when both houses of the Legislature flipped and the governor’s office turned, Republicans could not beat Michaud and Pingree.

Knocking off a sitting incumbent is tough. Even in the tumultuous 2010 elections, 85 percent of U.S. Representatives were re-elected. Most years, the re-election rate is in the high 90s. You have to go way back to 1992 to get close to the turnover of 2010 in Congress. Even then, 88 percent of incumbents were re-elected.

In 2010, Pingree defeated tea party favorite Dean Scontras, 57 percent to 43 percent, while Michaud beat Jason Levesque, 55 percent to 45 percent. In a different, more typical year, neither of these challengers would have gotten so close.

The ultimate GOP fantasy is that by putting Michaud and Pingree in the same district, one would knock the other off in a Democratic primary, and leave a weakened incumbent, vulnerable to a Republican challenger.

More realistically, Republicans likely accept that Pingree would remain in the 1st District, but the opportunity to redistrict her out of her home, force her to either move or run as a non-resident of the 1st District was an insult they could not resist.

Pingree began her political life as a state senator from Knox County in 1992. North Haven is her hometown, and the voters there are her people. In 2010, she won 59 percent of the vote in Knox County.

Republicans would like to separate her from that base, even if their prospects for actually beating her get worse. It has the feel of a personal attack, a slap at a political foe that Republicans haven’t been able to beat.

Under the Republican map, the 2nd Congressional District will get more Republican; the 1st District will get more Democratic. Pingree would be safer than she is today, but exiled from her home.

The last time that Maine’s Congressional Districts were redrawn, it was done by the courts because the two political parties were unable to agree. The incredible difference between the two plans makes it look like we’re headed there again.

I would like to think that a court would side with a more reasonable plan, but I am reluctant to predict judicial outcomes. Think OJ, Casey Anthony or Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

When it comes to politics in the courtroom, the two don’t mix very well. Anything can happen.

There’s a public hearing scheduled for Aug. 23 and the Legislature will hold a special session in September to vote on the new district lines.

Maine saw a minor change in population over a 10-year period. That change is now being used as the means to drastically change Maine’s congressional and presidential political map. You see this chicanery in other states, but it’s an open question whether Maine voters will stand for it.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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